[27 January 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When you’re tackling the real life story of the greatest equine athlete in the history of horse racing, there are several uphill battles one must face. The first, and perhaps most challenging, is the truth itself. After all, unless the backstory beats the events that really took place, the drama drags behind actuality. Not even colorful players or the unusualness of a bygone era can salvage the situation from the inevitable sense of…well, inevitability. Take Secretariat, the new film from the same team who crafted the feel good films The Rookie and Miracle. Tackling the Triple Crown Winner’s rise to competitive prominence would appear, at first, to be a simple case of standard storytelling. But since many believe this steed to be one of the greatest that ever ran, there’s got to be more.
And so the movie piles on the characters - compelling characters, manipulative characters, composite characters and characters designed to forward both the narrative and psychological subtexts. We get determined and focused characters, quirky and eccentric characters, shady and villainous characters, and most importantly, cinematically feel good characters. Indeed, everything about Secretariat (now out on DVD and Blu-ray from Walt Disney Pictures) is designed to make the accomplishments of this special animal seem like part of a bigger, broader picture. Of course, pure talent and ability are not enough in the motion picture world. We’ve got to have simulated stock backstory to keep the uninitiated and the later generations interested - oh, and the aforementioned characters.
When we first meet Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane), she is taking over the family farm from her aging and afflicted father (Scott Glenn). Times are tough, and money is scarce. While her brother (Dylan Baker) would love to sell the place and make some kind of profit, Penny is convinced she can make a go of it. After losing a coin flip over a famous horse, our plucky, pre-feminist heroine ends up with a promising young colt named Big Red. With the help of down on his luck trainer Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich), horse psychic Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), rider Ron Turcotte (jockey Otto Thorwarth), Penny battles the rampant sexism all around her, renames the pony Secretariat, and watches as it goes from potential laughing stock to become one of the most famous and celebrated horses of all time.
For what it’s worth, Secretariat is a definite crowd pleaser. Now, there is nothing wrong with catering to the entertainment needs of the populace. As a matter of fact, more films could benefit from being less isolated and insular. But because we already know how things will turn out, director Randall Wallace and writer Mike Rich have their work cut out for them. Touching on aspects of the time (the post-Peace generation malaise of a still antiwar 1973) as well as minor personal issues between the people involved, the movie just wants to make your smile. No serious dissection of horse racing in general. No discussion of the arduous process of breaking and training said animals. No look at how elitist and closed the racing and breeding circuit really is. Not even a smattering of Triple Crown import. Instead, we are supposed to survive on pluck and reserve, waiting for the inevitable moment when Secretariat comes from behind and leaves the rest of the pack in the dust.
Unlike Seabiscuit, which tried (and somewhat succeeded) in being a pseudo-social commentary of its times, Secretariat offers no such insights. Sure, Penny is put upon by every man on the planet. It’s shorthand for a chauvinistic, paternalistic era. Yes, Lucien has his own demons to battle and overcome, but we are decades away from the kind of simplistic self-help he might need. Money woes seem weird, especially for people who have a multimillion dollar spread to kvetch about, and for the most part, everyone’s personality plays into the narrative without filling in the edges. The result is something rote, a flag waver that’s always unsure of where its cinematic sovereignty lies. Even the races fail to fully engage since, in the end, there’s no normative suspense.
That’s the trick with “true life” stories. Play too close to the facts and some will wonder why you didn’t just go the documentary route. Fly too far outside reality and you’re basically making it all up. It’s a precarious balancing act, one made even more complicated by the foundation of the film you are striving to create. Secretariat struggles beyond the basics because it’s got nothing more solid to deal with. There is no big denouement waiting behind the winner’s circle, no scandalous family horror peeking out from behind the signposts to success. In essence, we have the cliched tale of a businesswoman braving her bank statement so that she can do what she’s always done - and done well. While there is a learning curve to be seen, it’s barely beyond a straight line.
Maybe a better title for this otherwise enjoyable experience would be Secretariat for Dummies. As with many mainstream efforts, we are never going to get the warts and all explanation of how things went down, and with a likeable cast involved, there’s probably no need. All it has to do is hit the right notes and no one will be the wiser. Of course, it could be the fact that Secretariat’s legend is just that lightweight. There is no connection to the turbulent early ‘70s except temporally, and for all her grousing grrrl power, Penny Tweedy is just a novice who needs a few rose wreaths to gain the begrudging respect of her peers.
As with most things in competition, winning is the best means of making up ground. Being the second to last horse to win The Triple Crown (Seattle Slew and Affirmed would round out the Me Decade triumvirate) - the first in nearly twenty five years - remains a solid athletic accomplishment, one worthy of all the pundit accolades. Secretariat strives for a similar level of significance and ends up losing out by much more than a nose.