"Secretariat": A gorgeous, creepy American myth

Diane Lane shines in a Tea Party-flavored, Christian-friendly yarn about one big horse and our nation's past

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 7, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

Diane Lane in "Secretariat"
Diane Lane in "Secretariat"

"Secretariat" is such a gorgeous film, its every shot and every scene so infused with warm golden light, that I began to wonder whether the movie theater were on fire. Or my head. But the welcoming glow that imbues every corner of this nostalgic horse-racing yarn with rich, lambent color comes from within, as if the movie itself is ablaze with its own crazy sense of purpose. (Or as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.) I enjoyed it immensely, flat-footed dialogue and implausible situations and all. Which doesn't stop me from believing that in its totality "Secretariat" is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and all the more effective because it presents as a family-friendly yarn about a nice lady and her horse.

In its own strange way, "Secretariat" is a work of genius. On its lustrous surface, it's an exciting sports movie in a familiar triumph-over-adversity vein, based on the real-life career of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, probably the greatest racehorse ever, and his owner, Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane in a resplendent collection of period knitwear and steel-magnolia 'tude. "Secretariat" is self-consciously crafted in the mode of last year's hit "The Blind Side" (which made a zillion bucks and won Sandra Bullock an Oscar), and clearly hopes for similar rewards. Like that film, it uses a "true story" as the foundation for a pop-historical reverie that seems to reference enduring American virtues -- self-reliance, stick-to-it-iveness, etc. -- without encouraging you to think too much about their meaning or context.

Although the troubling racial subtext is more deeply buried here than in "The Blind Side" (where it's more like text, period), "Secretariat" actually goes much further, presenting a honey-dipped fantasy vision of the American past as the Tea Party would like to imagine it, loaded with uplift and glory and scrubbed clean of multiculturalism and social discord. In the world of this movie, strong-willed and independent-minded women like Chenery are ladies first (she's like a classed-up version of Sarah Palin feminism), left-wing activism is an endearing cute phase your kids go through (until they learn the hard truth about inheritance taxes), and all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse, a hero so superhuman he isn't human at all.

Now, the fact that director Randall Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich locate this golden age between 1969 and 1973 might seem at first like a ludicrous joke, if you are old enough (as I am) to halfway remember those years. I'll say that again: The year Secretariat won the Triple Crown was the year the Vietnam War ended and the Watergate hearings began. You could hardly pick a period in post-Civil War American history more plagued by chaos and division and general insanity (well, OK -- you could pick right now). Wallace references that social context in the most glancing and dismissive manner possible -- Penny's eldest daughter is depicted as a teen antiwar activist, in scenes that resemble lost episodes of "The Brady Bunch" -- but our heroine's double life as a Denver housewife and Virginia horse-farm owner proceeds pretty much as if the 1950s had gone on forever. (The words "Vietnam" and "Nixon" are never uttered.)

One shouldn't impute too much diabolical intention to the filmmakers; for all I know, Penny Chenery really did live in an insulated, lily-white bubble of horsey exurban privilege, and took no notice of the country ripping itself apart. But today, in the real world, we find ourselves once again in an enraged and dangerously bifurcated society, and I can't help thinking that "Secretariat" is meant as a comforting allegory, like Glenn Beck's sentimental Christmas yarn: The real America has been here all along, and we can get it back. If we just believe in -- well, in something unspecified but probably pretty scary.

Religion and politics are barely mentioned in the story of Chenery and her amazing horse, but it's clear that "Secretariat" was constructed and marketed with at least one eye on the conservative Christian audiences who embraced "The Blind Side." The film opens with a voice-over passage from the Book of Job and ends with a hymn. Wallace, also the director of "We Were Warriors" and the writer of "Pearl Harbor" and "Braveheart," is one of mainstream Hollywood's few prominent Christians, and has spoken openly about his faith and his desire to make movies that appeal to "people with middle-American values."

Hey, all's fair in art and commerce. Hollywood has finally woken up (a few decades late) to the enormous consumer power of the Christian market, and given all the namby-pamby Tinseltown liberalism right-wingers love to complain about, it's about time. But it's legitimate to wonder exactly what Christian-friendly and "middle-American" inspirational values are being conveyed here, or whether they're just providing cover for some fairly ordinary right-wing ideology and xenophobia. This long-suffering female Job overcomes such tremendous obstacles as having been born white and Southern and possessed of impressive wealth and property, and who then lucks into owning a genetic freak who turned out to be faster and stronger than any racehorse ever foaled. And guess what? She triumphs anyway!

If Americans love to root for the underdog, they may love to root for the favorite disguised as the underdog even more. That's pretty much what happens here, with the blond, privileged Penny Chenery and her superhorse posed as emblems of American ingenuity and power against the villainous, swarthy and vaguely terrorist-flavored Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), trainer of Sham, Secretariat's archrival. (Even the horse's name is evil!) The competition between the two horses was real enough; they raced neck-and-neck in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But the depiction of Martin as an evil, chauvinistic braggart is fictional and highly unpleasant -- and it's tough not to notice that he's one of only two nonwhite speaking characters in the film. The other one is Eddie (Nelsan Ellis), an African-American groom who belongs to a far more insidious tradition of movie stereotypes. Eddie dances and sings. He loves Jesus and that big ol' horse. He is loyal and deferential to Miz Penny, and injects soul and spirit into her troubled life. I am so totally not kidding.

To move from content back to form, let me repeat that there's a whole lot to like in "Secretariat." Diane Lane gives a weirdly compelling performance, one of her best. She renders Penny Chenery as an iron-willed superwoman, striking and magisterial but utterly nonsexual, illuminated from within like a medieval saint. She busts down the doors on the boys' club of old-money Kentucky and Virginia racing, outwits the tax authorities and defangs Pancho Martin, in between doing loads of her kids' laundry. It's hard to say who is more indomitable, Penny or the magnificent colt she called Big Red, who capped his Triple Crown with an unbelievable 31-length victory at New York's Belmont Stakes. It's a charismatic, ultra-cornball performance, and right about the time that Rich's screenplay runs out of let's-go-get-'em speeches for Lane to deliver, Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler step in with wonderfully varied and dazzling approaches to Secretariat's four big races (the Triple Crown plus the earlier Wood Memorial, where he finished fourth).

Despite those thrilling sequences, you don't learn much more about the world of racing in "Secretariat" than you learn about Facebook in "The Social Network" (and a lot of the stuff about racing in this movie is wrong or misleading). (You won't learn anything about anything from John Malkovich's mailed-in performance as eccentric French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin.) Big Red himself is a big, handsome MacGuffin, symbolic window dressing for a quasi-inspirational fantasia of American whiteness and power. Horses don't go to the movies, and this movie is about human beings, and our nonsensical but inescapable yearning to find the keys to the future in stupid ideas about a past that never existed.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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