Movie Review: “Secretariat”

09 Nov

I’m generally not a horse movie person. Normally, I’d rather take in a hard-hitting drama or explosive action movie. But there’s quite a lot to be said for doing something with friends – and when the PHC debate team decided to see “Secretariat” after our recent tournament, I was game.

“Secretariat” is the story of arguably the greatest racehorse to ever live. Knowing the ending beforehand can sometimes make a movie less appealing – but in this case, knowing the outcome gives the movie depth and direction. Upon the death of her father, former housewife Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes over management of his horse farm, expelling corrupt hired hands and negotiating breeding agreements. Shortly thereafter, Secretariat is born – and, for Penny, is special from the very beginning. As the just-foaled Secretariat staggers to his feet, one observer notes, “No horse ever stands up that fast.”

Penny swiftly determines that a horse with Secretariat’s potential deserves a good trainer, and proceeds to call Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, in a surprisingly non-creepy role) out from retirement. Together, the two successfully mold Secretariat into a supremely powerful racehorse. That’s not to say Secretariat doesn’t have his weaknesses – generally, he suffers from slow starts and must accelerate rapidly in order to win – but Penny and Laurin are confident in his ability to claim victory.

However, there are cracks beneath the surface of this seemingly perfect story. Penny’s constant trips to the horse farm – as well as to races – start taking a toll on her family. She begins missing her family’s important events, and even becomes embroiled in a heated legal argument with her own brother. Ultimately, however, her crusade proves successful. After winning a series of small races, the next step is logically the Triple Crown. As fans of horse racing will already know, Secretariat wins the three races and sets two records in the process – records that stand unbroken today.

From a purely technical standpoint, the film excels.Notably, the racing sequences in “Secretariat” are truly breathtaking. The effective use of slow-motion cameras enhances the action, making fast-paced horse races much easier to follow. The acting is also effective, although no one performance stands out. Also worth considering is the fact that there’s no innuendo or violence, and very little language, making “Secretariat” a generally good choice as a family film.

However, “Secretariat” has a serious and subtle flaw – the character of Penny Chenery.

It may sound strange to identify the main character as the movie’s biggest flaw, but Penny is just not a likable lead. She is ruthless in pursuing her goal of a victorious Secretariat, and does not care who she alienates in the process. Having known a few people like Penny, I found myself cringing at the way she treats her employees when she believes they’re not helping Secretariat achieve his potential. More problematic is the lack of interest she shows in her children, husband, or brother. Secretariat quickly becomes her #1 priority, trumping all other concerns in her life. It’s a dark undercurrent of aggressive feminism that keeps “Secretariat” from being a completely praiseworthy movie. And this isn’t a sexist argument – I’d raise the same concerns if this was a movie about a man who neglected his wife and children in order to pursue his goals. The film treats Penny’s choice as perfectly valid and praiseworthy, without ever really pausing to consider the impact on her family.

So, should you watch “Secretariat”?

This movie has divided Christian critics. Some don’t see Penny’s single-minded determination as problematic, while others recognize the less positive aspects of her story. Personally, I found it hard to enjoy a movie that, while it may be cinematically excellent, seems to condone putting one’s own self-centered interests above the welfare of one’s family. Some moviegoers may not pick up on these elements, and it’s certainly possible to enjoy “Secretariat” as purely a well-done horse movie. In that respect, at least, the film is well worth watching.

A well-done sports movie saddled with an unfortunate underlying message.

Normalized Score: 1.6

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Posted by on November 9, 2010 in Contemporary


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