Movie Reviews - 2010 postsMonday November 01, 2010
Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)
I had a moment of regret when this documentary started. “Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions there were horrific? That evil is banal?”
Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.
“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.
Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”
It’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.
Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?
Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”
Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.
Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.
We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.
We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.
The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.
Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.
It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.
The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were documenting a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.
In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.
It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.
I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.
Review: “Tangshan dadizhen” (2010)
XIAO XIN: SPOILERS
I knew going in that Xiaogang Feng's “Tangshan dadizhen” (“Aftershock”) focused on the Tangshan, China earthquake of 1976 that killed 240,000 people. I knew the movie set the all-time box-office record in China this year. And that’s about all I knew. So I spent much of the movie trying to figure out what the movie was about.
It begins well. We’re told it’s July 27, 1976 in Tangshan City, a train goes by, and it’s followed by a dragonfly. Then two. Then thousands. The people waiting at the railroad crossings are freaked, astonished, puzzled. “Daddy,” a little girl in a truck says, “why are there so many dragonflies?” The father tilts his head out the window. “A storm must be approaching,” he says.
That’s not bad.
There are early touches that reminded me of early Spielberg. We follow this family, the Fangs, whose two kids—a boy (Fang Da), and a girl (Fang Deng), twins—noisily request popsicles, fight and run from bullies, and share, with mom, the benefits of a new electric fan on a hot, summer day. I'm not sure my mind would’ve turned to Spielberg without knowing this movie set the box-office record in China, but at the least there’s a broadly drawn cuteness here that would’ve fit just as easily into an Arizona suburb.
That night, or early morning, as the kids are sleeping, and as the mother and father, at his late-night construction job, make love in the back of his enclosed truck, there’s more ominous foreshadowing. The sky turns purple and the little girl’s fish jump right out of the fishtank. Then the earth moves. The Tangshan earthquake registered anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale, and its death toll makes it the most disastrous earthquake of the 20th century. Pipe mains burst, buildings give way, heavy objects—boom—crush people indiscriminately. It’s brutal. People run, but from what? To what? There’s no safety. Mom and Dad struggle to make it back to the kids. At the window, the little girl cries for her mom. Mom cries back: “Lie-le!” (“I’m coming!”) But the father spins the mother out of the way, and to relative safety, just as the building collapses with the kids in it. Pretty horrific. We see them go down like Leo in “Titanic.” The special effects aren’t Industrial Light & Magic, but they’re not bad.
An earthquake can only last so long, though—Tangshan’s lasted 23 seconds—and we’re just 10-15 minutes into the movie. At this point I’m wondering: “What is this film going to be?”
When the dust settles, both kids and father are trapped, but alive, so I thought, “Oh, this will be about the struggle to get them out. It’ll be like ‘World Trade Center.’”
Then aftershocks hit and the father dies. The twins are still trapped beneath opposite sides of the same concrete slab, and the mother begs neighbors and workers—those small Chinese men in boxers and flip-flops who can lift refrigerators on their backs—to get them out. To lift the concrete slab, unfortunately, the weight has to go on one side. One child will be crushed in order to save the other and the mother has to choose: Which child do you save? Which child do you kill? It’s an impossible choice. But as the men are about to leave to help others, she shouts, suddenly, and then says, quietly, horrified, “Jao Di Di” (“Save little brother”).
“Oh,” I thought. “So it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ A mother has to live with the consequences of sacrificing one child in order to save another.”
A moment later, the mother carries her daughter’s broken body and places it next to the father’s broken body. Then she and her chosen son, the only two members of the family to survive, make their way, with other survivors, out to relief stations set up by the Chinese army, who are making their way into the devastated city.
Except the girl is not dead. A rain falls and she rises, blinking one eye. (The other is swollen shut as if she’d just gone 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.) I’m not sure what to make of this resurrection. Her death was greatly exaggerated? Her father’s spirit somehow revived her? We do know that while the concrete slab apparently didn’t crush her body, her mother’s choice, which she heard from beneath the rubble, crushes her spirit. The vivacious and mouthy little girl we knew for the first 10 minutes of the movie is gone, replaced by a blank, mute girl. Ultimately she’s adopted by two officers of the Chinese army, and they rename her Ya Ya, but, speaking up for the first time since Mom’s choice, she insists on being called “Deng,” even as she’s willing to give up the “Fang.”
The boy, meanwhile, has lost his left arm, and he’s about to lose his mother. In one of those really Chinese cultural moments, the mother of the now-dead husband, the grandmother, insists, in that roundabout Chinese way, of raising the child herself, while the boy’s actual mother, with apparently no rights in the matter, acquiesces. But just as the bus is pulling away, the grandmother’s daughter, the boy’s aunt, finally speaks up and shames the grandmother. At this point we see it all from the mother’s perspective. The bus rumbles down the dirt street. Then it stops. The doors open. And out comes little Fang Da running towards her. It’s a hokey moment but hokey works. I choked up.
Of course I’m waiting, with everyone, for the twins to reunite. But suddenly it’s 1986 and Deng is going off to med school while Da is starting a pedicab business; and then it’s 1995, and Deng has an out-of-wedlock child, a daughter, whom she couldn’t abort because of her own mother’s choice to, in essence, “abort” her, while Da is married and running a successful business but dealing with conflicts between his wife and his mother, the original Chinese martyr. “Oh,” I thought. “This is a decades-long melodrama. Like ‘Giant.’”
And it continued. The movie takes us from the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 (8.0; 68,000 dead), where the twins, both volunteers, finally reunite (interestingly, off-screen). The movie is about how this family is broken and how it comes together again. It’s also about how Tangshan is broken and comes together again. Reduced to rubble in 1976, it is, by the end, a glittering metropolis. Could it finally be about how China is broken and comes together again? The 1976 section ends with Mao’s funeral, with China reduced to economic rubble, and takes us to today, with China a world economic power, and with all of our main characters, with their heavy heartaches, living in relative comfort. Even broken, they have risen.
And that’s when I finally got it. “Oh,” I thought. “It’s the national story told as one family’s soap opera. Or the national soap opera told through one family. It’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’” Thus its popularity.
At the same time, setting “the all-time Chinese box office record” doesn’t mean much these days. The record it broke, “Avatar’s,” was set earlier this year, while the record that one broke, “2012,” was set in 2009, while the record that one broke... etc. Box-office records are broken all the time in China now for a reason. More theaters are being built, and more Chinese have the leisure time and disposable income to see filmed stories that solidify national myths: I.e., this is a story about how we got to the point where we could waste our time watching this.
Welcome to the party, pengyoumen.
Review: “Hereafter” (2010)
WARNING: UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY SPOILERS, FROM WHOSE (JASON) BOURN NO TRAVELER RETURNS
“Hereafter” needs a subtler touch than director Clint Eastwood brings. Eastwood has a nasty habit of choosing sides. His is all good, the other is all bad, and doubt and ambiguity are for saps (or, in Eastwoodian, “punks”). This is true if the subject is a San Francisco cop, a lady boxer, or the most important question human beings can ask:
What happens when we die?
Every religion in the world, and half the charlatans, promise to answer that question. Eastwood, and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”; “Frost/Nixon”), now do. Without doubt or ambiguity. You got a problem with that...punk?
We get three main storylines. In the first, a pretty French TV journalist, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), finds her career, and life, sidetracked after she is swept up in a tsunami and dies for an unspecified amount of time. This tsunami is monstrous and terrifying and the best part of the film. After getting knocked out, Marie drifts in the water while a toy bear, floating above her, stares down. We hear a heartbeat until we don’t. The screen goes dark. Then we get blurry images, silhouettes, and mumbling. It’s like that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Are these silhouettes the living, whom she is leaving, or the dead, who are greeting her? At first I assumed the latter, but then two silhouettes move towards us, and one gives us a sense of resuscitation, and, voila, suddenly we’re back, with someone on a rooftop giving Ms. Lelay mouth-to-mouth. Enjoy that scene. The movie is called “Hereafter” but this is the last glimpse of the hereafter we’ll get.
The second storyline follows George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, as a child, had a near-death experience, and ever since, whenever he touches someone, zap, he can communicate with this person’s deceased loved ones.
(BTW: Do the communicatees have to be “loved ones”? And are they the deceased who mean the most to this person or the deceased for whom this person means the most? Might George touch my hands, for example, and suddenly be talking with someone I barely knew but who secretly loved me and is just, you know, hanging around? Are there stalkers in the hereafter?)
George’s older brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), a businessman, wants to exploit this talent—he’s developed a website and everything—but George wants to ignore it completely because the after-effects are somewhat deleterious. The connection isn’t immediately broken and he seems not quite there, floating in this middle kingdom, listening to dull radio fully-clothed in bed. “A life about death is no life at all,” George tells his brother. So he’s trying something else: a working-class job at the C&H plant and a once-a-week Italian cooking class to meet people. Mostly, though, he’s alone. Eastwood does alone well but he does it too often here. I think we get three shots of George eating by himself while a guitarist on the soundtrack picks out a few lonely chords.
If that’s not pathos enough, there’s the London storyline, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twin boys who save their pennies, or maybe their ha’ pennies, to pay for a self-portrait for their mum, who, alas, is a drug addict. It’s like something out of a silent melodrama: They care for her with one hand while fending off social services with the other. One morning she sends Marcus on an errand, but at the last instant, Jason, the more talkative, baseball-cap-wearing brother, goes, and I immediately thought, “OK, he’s dead.” It reminded me of the anxiety accompanying the first scenes of the HBO series “Six Feet Under”: Who’s going to die and how? Here we know who; it’s all about how. Ah, bullies: Eastwood’s favorite trope. No wait, Jason runs from the bullies. So he’ll run right into an oncoming car, right? Wrong. It’s an oncoming truck.
Those are our three storylines—all related to death and the hereafter. One assumes they’ll connect eventually. And they do—eventually—but Eastwood's 80 now, and like any 80-year-old he takes his time getting there.
In the meantime: Lelay takes a leave of absence from her weekly news-magazine show to write a revisionist bio of former French president Francois Mitterrand, dead now 10 years, but turns in three chapters on the hereafter instead. She’s shocked that her publishing house isn’t interested, and shocked again when her weekly show, and accompanying Blackberry ads, go to a younger, Asian-y woman. She was so proud of those ads.
Lonegan begins a flirtation with a cute woman in his cooking class, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in which each’s interest in the other is obvious. But during prep for a home-cooked meal, his secret, his superpower as it were, is slowly revealed; and when she insists he try it on her, he finds out things she doesn’t want revealed. And there goes that. He’s back to eating alone while the guitarist plucks a few lonely chords.
Marcus, meanwhile, is put into a foster home with well-meaning parents, but he’s quiet, and wearing Jason’s baseball cap, and doing whatever he can to communicate with Jason. This includes visiting charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead.
In this way, each character deals with a perhaps culturally specific response to their association with the hereafter. Marcus gets British charlatans. Lelay, who definitely experienced something when she died, gets the French, the center of modern, progressive culture, who definitively know nothing happens. We just die. C’est tout. And Lonegan definitely communicates with the dead, but instead of treating this as the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, which it is, his brother treats it as a way to make a coupla bucks. So American.
Eventually (there’s that eventually), all three converge at a convention for a dying industry (books) in London. Marcus is with his foster parents, Lonegan, who loves Dickens, is attending a Derek Jacobi reading of “Little Dorrit,” and Lelay is shilling her book in stilted English.
Lonegan, lonely boy, is of course enamored of Lelay, chic Frenchwoman, but does nothing with it. (Welcome to the party, pal.) Marcus, meanwhile, recognizes Lonegan and convinces him to use his superpower to communicate with Jason.
This is the fourth example of communication with the hereafter we have in the film. The first, Lelay’s, is visual but vague, while Lonegan’s two previous encounters—with his brother’s neighbor and with Melanie—are more about helping the living with their personal issues. The dead are so understanding that way. The neighbor’s dead wife encourages him to marry again, to her former nurse, June, with whom he was secretly in love. Melanie’s dead father apologizes for sexually abusing her. None of the living ask the obvious question: Hey, what’s it like to be dead?
Marcus has a bit of Dr. Phil in him, too—he tells Jason to stop wearing his baseball cap and get on with his life—but, bless him, he at least gives us a glimpse of what it means to be dead. Quick answer? It’s fun. “You can be all things and all at once,” he says through Lonegan. “And the weightlessness!”
That’s the shame of “Hereafter.” It posits that none of us, except a chosen few, are interested in what happens when we die, when all of us are interested in what happens when we die. We’re just tired of the answers we keep getting. Including, now, Eastwood’s.
Death is apparently like this, but with smaller heads.
Review: “Red” (2010)
WARNING: COMPANY SPOILERS
How far have we fallen as a country in the last 30 years? Here’s how far.
Our movies about the CIA used to be this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the president of the United States! Oh my god!
Now they’re this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the vice-president of the United States! Yay!
The assassins in this latter case, in the movie “Red,” are, to be sure, rogue agents, or retired agents, who have been forced out of retirement because this vice president, with war crimes to hide, has targeted them. So our heroes are less “the CIA” than individual agents. They’re soldiers. Support the troops, man.
But it’s still odd and disheartening.
Our fear used to be Frankensteinian in nature. The monster we created, the national security agency, had turned on its creator, the U.S. government, and through a rogue agent (“In the Line of Fire”), or with the help of the entire agency (“JFK”), was trying to remove the democratically elected president of the United States. The CIA, created to protect the people, but unaccountable to the people, was subverting democracy.
Now? In “Red”? The agency still sucks because it’s a bureaucracy and bureaucracies suck. But democracy sucks, too. The vice-president needs to be assassinated not only because he’s immoral but because he’s running for president—he has the money and the organization—and we have no faith that we the people won’t see through the money and organization, and we’ll elect him anyway. We are, in a certain sense, the movie’s unnamed villains. Democracy, a good idea in its day, doesn’t work with people as stupid as us.
When the movie opens, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is dealing somnabulantly with retirement. He gets up at six, pads downstairs in his robe, drinks coffee, works out. He’s a retired CIA agent—we know that going in—but he’s like someone in the witness protection program. A neighbor says hi, he says hi back, then notices all the other houses have Christmas lights up. So he buys some. He’s just trying to fit in with these people.
The one bright spot in his day, or his week, is talking on the phone with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer-service rep whom he contacts when he doesn’t get his retirement check. He gets it all the time but he keeps tearing it up so he can talk to Sarah. It’s a small life.
One morning, though, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep (I know the feeling), so he pads downstairs. In the darkness, three men wearing ninja clothes, infrared goggles, and carrying high-tech weapons, silently follow him as he walks into the kitchen. Then they shoot up the kitchen. But he’s not in the kitchen, he’s in a nearby room, and he takes them all out. They’re just the first wave of the assault team. The second wave turns his house into swiss cheese with automatic weapons fire but by this point he’s safe in the basement; and when the second wave enters the house he takes them out, too, then leaves while part of his house crumbles. He doesn’t look back.
He’s on his way to Kansas City and Sarah. He assumes the CIA hit squad was targeting him because he had been talking to her. So they must be targeting her, too.
Sarah is the typical civilian in these kinds of stories. She dates badly and reads thrilling adventure novels to make up for the boredom in her life. Nothing ever happens to her. Until Frank shows up at her place, or in her place, and freaks her out.
Some good comedic bits here. “Did you vacuum?” she asks, looking around her apartment. “It was a bit messy,” he admits. Later, as they drive away, he talks about how he imagined it would be different the first time they met. Cut to: her, tied up in the back, duct tape over her mouth.
Moses is a man on the run trying to figure out why he’s on the run. He visits other retired agents: Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) in New Orleans and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) in Florida. Joe has a bit of a good speech: “I never thought this would happen to me,” he says. “Getting old.” For a moment we identify; then we realize he’s talking less philosophy than lifestyle. “Vietnam. Afghanistan. [pause] Green Springs Retirement Home?” Marvin, meanwhile, is nutso. He thought they were feeding him daily doses of LSD, and, Moses admits, they were, for 11 years. He’s the kind of anti-government paranoid that used to be associated with the left but is now wholly associated with the right. Libertarians are beating anarchists in the battle for nutjobs everywhere.
So why is Moses being targeted? I alluded to it earlier. Seems he and some others—all of whom have died over the last year—were part of a CIA extraction team in Guatemala in the fall of 1981. They were extracting a war criminal, the son of a rich man, who became Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon: Dr. Doom from “The Fantastic Four”), the vice president of the United States. Stanton is now running for president, and he, or someone backing him, doesn’t want any skeletons. Moses doesn’t want to be a skeleton. Thus the conflict.
I wonder how these movies play abroad. Are they accurately translated? There’s a moment, for example, when the young CIA buck, William Cooper (Karl Urban), enters the archives in Langley, Virginia, watched over by Henry the Record Keeper (Ernest Borgnine), to check out the file of Moses, the man he’s been ordered to kill. He opens it up... and almost everything is redacted. There’s nothing to read. It’s a good bit, worth a laugh. Karl then talks up Moses. How he was the best. How in his day he took out drug lords and terrorists. “Hell,” Henry says with a bright smile, “he toppled governments!”
Really? That’s the kind of thing that used to cause major moral qualms in this country. We’re toppling democratically elected governments? I thought we were the good guys. Now it’s a throwaway line said with pride. It’s what our heroes do.
You know that scratchy, sickly feeling you get in your chest and throat right before you get a cold? How you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s an indication something worse is coming? That’s how I felt walking out of “Red.” It’s a movie that demonstrates how sick we’re becoming.
Review: “Secretariat” (2010)
WARNING: I GIVE IT UP TO CHIC ANDERSON WITH THE SPOILERS
There are entertainments I associate with my mother’s mother, Grammie, who lived in Finksburg, Maryland, and watched shows on a heavy, RCA console television set with a lace doily and ceramic figurines of cherubic children on top. Think of these shows as one part “Lawrence Welk,” one part “Hee Haw,” and one part ceramic figurines of cherubic children. Characters were both ploddingly obvious and oddly foreign, huge swaths of time seemed to envelope moments between dialogue, and the overall effect was so airless and enervating that as a child, watching them, I grew vaguely nauseous. Alexander Payne captured these entertainments perfectly in “About Schmidt” with whatever late 1960s Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller comedy Warren Schmidt was watching after his wife died. These are shows for people who are no longer quite alive, who are set in their ways, who are now as stubbornly unmovable as Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top.
Walt Disney’s “Secretariat,” the new film from screenwriter Mike Rich and director Randall Wallace, is that kind of entertainment.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Diane Lane quoting scripture: that moment in the Old Testament when God basically tells Job, “Who the hell are you to question Me?” then iterates all the stuff He, and not Job, has done. Including:
Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. ... In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground; he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
Cut to: a nice suburban home in Denver hardly suffering the deprivations of Job.
It’s 1969, a year of social turmoil in America, but in this home, the Tweedy home, standards are maintained. Mom’s hair is expertly coiffed as she serves breakfast, Dad (Dylan Walsh), a lawyer, reads the newspaper in his business suit, the teenage girls are rebellious in the manner of teenage girls (they’re putting on an anti-war pageant), while younger brother holds his rambunctiousness until he’s outside. Then the phone rings, Penny Tweedy, nee Chenery (Diane Lane), answers it, and a second later she drops a bowl on the floor. Does anyone really drop dishes when they hear bad news? It’s like a conceit out of films from the 1930s.
Penny grew up on a farm in Virginia, where her father, Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn), bred thoroughbreds. But now Mom’s gone (that’s the bad news) and Dad’s suffering what one assumes is Alzheimer’s (it’s never mentioned: standards need to be maintained), so Penny has to make sense of all this. She has to figure out what to do with the family legacy, which includes two pregnant mares, one of whom, Somethingroyal, bred to Bold Ruler, will give birth to our title character.
Secretariat may be the title character, but this is Penny Chenery’s story: how she broke into the old boys’ club, saved the family farm and kept Secretariat, the horse with whom she had a special, if vague, and wholly undramatic bond.
It’s a story of a woman breaking into the old boys’ club the old-fashion way: with the help of the old boys: Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson), and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), the richest man in America, both of whom are amused and impressed by this gal’s genteel pluck.
Arrayed against her? Her husband and brother (Dylan Walsh and Dylan Baker) who want her to sell the farm.
Because her father’s trainer turns out to be a jerk and a thief, she hires another, the French Canadian Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who, one character says, “dresses like Super Fly,” even though he really dresses like a color-blind Bing Crosby, and even though in the actual world “Super Fly” won’t be released for another three years. Lucien is a respected trainer who carries losing press clippings in his wallet. That’s why Penny hires him. She knows he wants to win as much as she does.
In her corner, she also has her assistant, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale—“Paris je’taime”’s Colorado postal carrier), who names the horse and keeps Lucien in line, and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), a Negro with magic hands, whose dialogue (“You ‘bout to see somethin’ you ain’t never seen befo’!” shouted to the Kentucky morning) is like a conceit out of films from the 1940s.
So Secretariat is born, stands almost immediately, and then is off and running... somewhere. How does Lucien train him? We don’t know. How does Big Red get along with stablemate Riva Ridge, the ’72 Derby winner? That’s not even mentioned. Penny Chenery just has too much to worry about.
First: Can she keep up the farm? (Yes.) Then: Will Secretariat win as a two-year-old? (Yes.) Then her father dies, the feds want their damned estate taxes, and she, wife to a lawyer, sister to a Harvard economist, can’t afford them....unless they sell Secretariat, possibly to Ogden Phipps, who had his choice between two colts in 1969 and opted for the one that wasn’t Secretariat. Meanwhile, no one, no one, thinks her horse can win. Even when he wins he’s the underdog. Because apparently that’s the only kind of sports drama that Hollywood, and Disney, and you and I, can understand.
The movie is based upon a book by William Nack, played in the film by Kevin Connolly of “Entourage,” who wears fedora and moustache with as much conviction as a kid in a sixth-grade play. Nack also wrote a 1989 Sports Illustrated article about Secretariat called “Pure Heart,” which was chosen by David Halberstam for the compendium “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.” It’s worth reading for itself and as a corrective to the movie. One Baltimore handicapper, for example, a former prizefighter named Clem Florio, was so enamored of Secretariat, that, after his first victory—his first—he predicted Triple Crown. Then he got into a fistfight with a New York handicapper who questioned his judgment. Penny Chenery was hardly alone with her predictions of greatness.
Nack also gives us this:
Secretariat was an amiable, gentlemanly colt, with a poised and playful nature that at times made him seem as much a pet as the stable dog was. I was standing in front of his stall one morning, writing, when he reached out, grabbed my notebook in his teeth and sank back inside, looking to see what I would do. “Give the man his notebook back!” yelled Sweat. As the groom dipped under the webbing, Secretariat dropped the notebook on the bed of straw.
Great scene. Nowhere in the movie, of course. Nothing even close to it. “Secretariat” is a horse racing movie without much horse or much racing. It just tosses up obstacles—including, in the third act, Sham’s trash-talking owner, Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano)—for its poised, almost brittle heroine to genteelly step over.
Has Diane Lane ever been this bad? She sells none of the film’s awful lines. Malkovich provides good comic relief, and Martindale is sturdy, but everything else feels as false as Kevin Connolly’s moustache.
What a shame. Secretariat is the perfect horse for Hollywood because he always came from behind to win—as he does in the Derby and the Preakness. Then we get the Belmont Stakes, the final and longest leg of the Triple Crown. Can Secretariat last? Will he fade? That’s the concern in the film.
My concern was different. Confession: I actually watch this race about six times a year on YouTube, usually when I need cheering up, so in the audience I wondered: Will they screw up dramatizing one of the greatest races ever run? For a moment I was hopeful when I heard, “I give it over to Chic Anderson with the call.” Anderson’s call is legitimately famous. He really didn’t have a race to call, he had a blowout, but he was up to it:
They're on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!
But the movie doesn’t give us the Chic Anderson call. It gives us someone doing the Chic Anderson call. And correcting it. Secretariat was so far in front of the other horses that Anderson couldn’t calculate his lead, so he had him winning by 25 lengths when he actually won by 31. In the movie, they get it right and miss the point.
Worse, and unforgivably, at the final turn, they suddenly cut the sound and go to slow motion. Then we hear, once again, Lane’s “Book of Job” voiceover. God, you see, has touched this horse in a way that He hasn’t touched you or I. He’s given him powers beyond those of mortal horses. That’s the only implication for such a monumental victory. God.
Unless one reads William Nack. “Pure Heart” begins in 1989 with Secretariat’s autopsy, when it’s discovered that the horse’s heart was twice the normal size. “It wasn’t pathologically enlarged,” the doctor tells Nack. “All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger.” If there’s a whisper of this in the movie you can’t hear it over the Jesus chorus. And I mean Jesus chorus. This is the song we get when Secretariat bolts down the stretch at Belmont to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown:
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
He washed my sins away
See the connection? Neither do I.
“Secretariat” is a movie that’s been scrubbed clean of life. It’s a movie without shit or sweat or intimations of sex. It’s as if these things don’t exist in this airless world. Neither, really, does war, since we think our kids are silly to protest it, and neither, really, does inequality, since, if Negroes know their place, and pretty housewives charm rich men, everyone can just get along. It’s a movie made to be watched on Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top. It’s for people who like the lie.