Friday, January 21, 2011

Secretariat Movie Review: The Disney Version of Horse Racing

We should expect treacly and trite when it comes to Disney’s live action films. It’s what they’ve always produced and I suppose there’s some value in good wholesome family entertainment. Certainly that’s what the Disney brand sells and it’s what many people want, but does this also have to mean that they make their films in a paint-by-numbers fashion, following the rules of Screenwriting 101 to the letter? As a company, Disney goes so far out of its way to avoid offending or upsetting anyone that the result is typically bland mediocre entertainment.

Sweet stories about animals have been their bread and butter for a long time. Secretariat is the latest about the legendary eponymous racehorse that won the Triple Crown in 1973 (the first horse to do so in 25 years). That it’s directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart and directed Pearl Harbor) and written by Mike Rich (Radio) should tell you something about the lack of subtlety in this desperately earnest sports tale.

Everyone already knows this is the story of a winning horse so Wallace and Rich should find the drama in the relationships of the characters most closely connected to the great champion’s success. There’s Penny Tweedy nee Chenery (Diane Lane), the horse’s owner; Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) the trainer; Ronny Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) the jockey; and Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood”) the groomer.

Penny’s decision to own a horse is established as a sort of Freudian desire to live up to her father’s (Scott Glenn) expectations. Although once upon a time she knew a great deal about horse breeding from growing up on daddy’s farm, she’s now a humble housewife and mother of four in Colorado. Returning back east for her mother’s funeral, she finds her father suffering from dementia, her brother (Dylan Baker) eager to sell off the farm and an itch she apparently never scratched.

She ultimately wins Secretariat in a coin toss with Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) a competing breeder who had a long established agreement with Penny’s father. They would breed Phipps’ great horse Bold Ruler with two mares from the Chenery farm and then toss a coin to determine ownership of the resulting foals. Here is where Lane gets one of her earliest opportunities to show what a tough savvy woman Penny is. She displays a seeming prescience in her desire for a particular foal, as if she sees a pedigree that occurred to no one else. It’s as if she knew she’d end up with the better horse because only she had the power to check the lineage records. So instead of it being a matter of pure luck, the film would have us believe it destiny.

Diane Lane has the right qualities to keep Penny grounded, with the glaring exception of a particularly groan-inducing piece of writing when she has to give a speech outlining the themes of the movie. It’s painful to watch an actress of her stature be reduced to delivering lines like, “I don’t care how many times they say no. I don’t care how many times they tell us we can’t do it!” Where’s John Belushi when you need him: “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” But Penny is a character that could easily have sunk to the depths of high school drama. Lane’s poise and grace always remain elevated above the low standards of the material.

Ditto for Malkovich, who makes a thoroughly interesting, funny and very human (somehow odd for an actor who has been best at playing weirdo and bizarre). Like the hats and trousers he frequently wears, Lucien Laurin is brash and colorful only on the surface. It takes an actor like Malkovich to scrub away the superficial elements to reveal the horse trainer and man with both a great yearning to win, a love for horses, and an understanding of how to pay a woman just the right compliment at just the right time.

But what of the other important person in this horse’s life, Eddie Sweat? Why is his whole character reduced to a guy who stands around whispering to the horse? Thankfully we don’t have to witness the degradation of yet another in a long line of Magical Black Men in Hollywood movies, but Sweat seems to have been completely stripped of essential qualities – like motivation – that make characters three-dimensional.

Praise must also be unfurled for the race sequences, which are expertly shot and edited. Wallace and his cinematographer, Dean Semmler, occasionally use a camera mounted on the running horse to see things from his perspective. As an attempt to broaden the horse as a character, it fails, but for purely technical reasons it’s impressive. It’s hard not to get caught up in the moment of the races.

However, for the few good things, there is much to deride, mainly in the way the whole movie feels like Disney World – evoking a time and place through rose colored glasses. The action of the film takes place between 1969 and 1973, right in the thick of the Vietnam War – a time when the country was deeply divided and in the midst of an existential crisis. While I suppose I should pay it the left-handed compliment of not exploiting Secretariat as a sports figure that healed the country in trying times (a la Seabiscuit), it’s hard not to notice that the allusions to the war are made through Penny’s eldest daughter, a young radical (but not too radical – we don’t want to offend remember) involved in an anti-war stage production. But the anti-war elements are cast as a cutesy extra-curricular activity that this young woman does in her spare time – and she and her friends even have time to make some “Go Secretariat” posters to go alongside the “Peace Now” signs.

Because this is a “feel good movie,” it’s apparently not permitted to have anyone be mean to anyone else – at least not for too long. So when Penny blows up on Ronny and Lucien after Secretariat finishes fourth in a very important race, demanding to know what went wrong, it isn’t long before she’s flashing a sweet smile and apologizing because it turned out the little horsey was just sick. Even the owner of Secretariat’s rival, who comes across as a cartoon villain, has a slight turnaround in the end. Isn’t it so nice when everyone is nice to everyone else? And of course, despite Penny having all but abandoned her family to follow her horse, her husband joins her before the Belmont Stakes to say the perfect thing and let her know that everything is all right.

This Disneyfication, the wholesale sanitizing of whole swaths of difficult subject matter, may be okay for kids’ films. But I think adults should be challenged a bit. Just a bit. Not every film necessarily needs to be The Deer Hunter, but neither should any of them be the equivalent of a saltine cracker – colorless and bland, used to tide you over until the next meal.

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