By Richard von Busack
Today’s riddle: when is a horse a bum steer?
I was ready to believe that Seabiscuit ended the Depression—as far as I was concerned, they could have had the pony rescuing FDR from drowning at Campobello by the end of that 2003 movie. You have to give a good film some slack.
Sadly for disbelief, I was alive in 1973, the year Secretariat got the triple crown (what, they made him Pope?). And I don’t recall his victory healing our divisions over the Vietnam War, though director Randall Wallace coaxes us to believe it’s true.
Peace signs are waved at the Kentucky Derby by smiling tie-dyed kids; this only three years after Hunter Thompson’s inaguration of a certain style of writing,“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” .
This piece is the only possible anodyne after two hours of horsies promised but not really delivered.
One turns back to HST’s description of the people he saw: “the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture… Not much energy in the faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children…”
Secretariat is inbred, that is precisely the word for it. It’s an inbred movie, the offspring of too many similar sports films. It’s relentlessly thick—custard-thick—and cheap-looking, too, and it’s story is as fishy as three day old salmon; it tries to make an under-horse out of a very blueblooded steed. It’s shot in gloomy overcast, with the producers saving a buck in sandy flat Louisiana; its startling how you can make a movie about horses in bluegrass paddocks that looks this pale and ill.
Diane Lane, ordinarily a fine actress, gets no help from the script which seems (as in one tantrum when she loses) to be trying to make her an anti-heroine…to put her a couple of degrees closer to Scarlett O’Hara.
Dressed like Tippi Hendren in Marnie, Lane plays throughbred breeder Penny Chenery. She’s a Denver mom who has to leave home to save her family’s Virginia horse farm, after her mother and father die. (As the father, Scott Glen has the longest decline and fall we’ve seen this year in the movies.) Penny is left with $6 million in inheritance tax. Fun fact: if you’ve got $6 million in “death taxes,” you’ve probably inherited a very nice chunk of change.
Her husband (Dylan Walsh) is a lawyer who has helped her raise the least plausible ‘70s family since the Brady Bunch; the Marcia of the family is working on “an anti-war pageant” for most of the picture.
Her brother (Dylan Baker), a professor of economics at Harvard urges her to sell the farm. We know he is a professor of economics at Harvard because he tells us that: “I’m a professor of economics at Harvard…”
All pressure her to sell and come back to Colorado and cook more macaroni and cheese for her brood. The only hope of this family to keep their ancestral turf: the winning potential of that certain red thoroughbred colt.
Secretariat’s birth in a manger is witnessed by Penny, her son, and her really tremendously obsequious groom Willie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, in one of those performances that embodies the proverb “into every life a little rain must fall”). The miracle of the pony’s birth is foretold in scripture through two separate citations of Job 39 19-25, to fluff the religious audience. The spirituals loaded in here must have also been part of the Divine Plan. I never thought of the Edwin Hawkins Singers as music to accompany the washing of a horse’s rump.
Ultimately, Secretariat is more fundraising pitch than race track action. It’s scenes of cold calling, scratching names off a list and fretting over the money. Certain technical improvements allow us to follow the races (utter slow-mo recreates a certain old experiment of Eadweard Muybridge’s, all four hooves really do leave the ground, who knew?).
But again, it’s a human story, and the film’s title ought to be Secretariat’s Owner: Penny hustles various plutocrats for a stake in the pony’s future. All doubt the ability of a mere girl to raise a major racehorse, and insist that she ought to be housewife instead of horsewife.
Rather than an ordinary railbird, Penny is a kind of feminist avenger. She's patronized by the male old guard, so that her triumph can show them up. There is a lot of old guard; Secretariat is a Sargasso Sea of moss-covered actors (of whom only James Cromwell, as the wealthy Ogden Phipps can add some customary brio). Fred “The Ol’ Republican Houn’ Dog” Thompson leads the parade of collapsed faces.
John Malkovich, under ideal circumstance, would be this movie’s savior. Instead, he spins his wheels like an upended jeep. Count the ways: his Lucien Laurien is supposedly Quebecois, so he can drop more weird French tags than Hercule Poirot; 2. he’s “dressed like Super Fly” in rainbow shades of polyester (a prescient comment by whoever it was that made this comment during the 1969 section of the film, since Super Fly didn’t come out until 1973); 3: lastly, he’s the victim of some Gene Kelly strength tooth-whitener.
Even the horse seems miscast. The script makes its arguments for the beast’s sentience—“I wouldn’t have believed he cared who owned him,” marvels Laurien, as Penny goes mano y mano with the stallion, urging him psychically to straighten up and run right. Trying to give Secretariat some character (a hearty appetite, he eats like a horse, who knew?) Wallace goes for yet more close-ups on that rolling wet bloodshot marble of a brown eye. You can’t divine expressions in it, the way you could in a twitch of Trigger’s muzzle…This horse seems diffident, unrehearsed. Maybe he’s miffed because he read the script?