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Critical Mass: 'Secretariat'

October 8, 2010 |  2:29 pm


Secretariat was one heck of a horse. In 1973, it became the first U.S. horse to win the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing in 25 years. Disney's "Secretariat" is more of a mixed bag, however. And the possessive is key here, because as The Times' Kenneth Turan points out, this film is "merely 'suggested by' [William Nack's nonfiction work] rather than the customary 'based on.' "

Turan comes out with lukewarm praise for the film, which "shows no fear of the sentimental, and that's putting it mildly." But he does say "a trio of interlocking factors keep the winces at a minimum and stop the film from going too far off the rails."

Those factors are the great real-life story behind the film, the directing-writing combo of Randall Wallace and Mike Rich and the "most significant factor in the success of 'Secretariat' is Diane Lane's crucial performance as Penny Chenery, who owned the horse and was a trailblazer in a male-dominated world that was unapologetically unfriendly to women with power."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir's over-the-top review is the kind of heavily political rant that's a love-it or leave-it affair but it's already got people around town wagging their tongues.

In his review, O'Hehir compares Disney's big family film to the work of notorious Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and says that "in its own strange way," it's a "work of genius."

The problem, as he sees it: "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."

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, who deserves much credit for laying out his bias up-front: He is close friends with Nack, who wrote the book on Secretariat. But despite (or maybe because of) his closeness to the source material, Ebert writes as a man who's fallen for this horse movie -- hard.

"So why, when I saw the race in the film, did I have tears in my eyes?" he writes. "It was because 'Secretariat' is a movie that allows us to understand what it really meant. This isn't some cornball formula film. It doesn't have a contrived romance.... It is a great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him."

If only Ebert were still on TV. It would be a treat to see him battle O'Hehir over this film.

Notorious movie grump Rex Reed, in his review for the New York Observer, also finds himself quite charmed. "This is one terrific movie about one terrific horse. It enthralls on so many levels— emotional, cinematic, historic — that I am willing to bet you'll go away sated with satisfaction from paddock to finish line."

Like several other critics, Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips sees direct parallels to last year's "The Blind Side." And though he's neither as high as Rex Reed or Roger Ebert nor as low as Andrew O'Hehir, Phillips rides right in the middle of the pac. Despite his love of Diane Lane, Phillips notes  that her prominence at the expense of the horse and its story sends his enthusiasm spiralling. " 'Secretariat' isn't bad but it's precisely what you'd expect," he writes. "The horse has to fight for his fair share of screen time, which is another thing the movie has in common with 'The Blind Side': The alleged subject of the film has been sidelined so that a good actress can strut her stuff."

--Patrick Kevin Day

 Photo: John Bramley / Walt Disney Pictures