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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: Oh, those kids), 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.

—October 9, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard