Champion the underhorse
SECRETARIAT WAS a racehorse that won the Kentucky Derby in 1973. Secretariatgate is a spat between Andrew O’Hehir and Roger Ebert, two of film criticism’s most learned gentlemen.
O’Hehir contends that this sugarcoated Disney portrait of 1970s America, based on achievements of the titular animal, is sinister and retrograde – “a work of creepy, half-hilarious masterrace propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.” Ebert has pointed out that a horse really has very little conception of Nietzschean ideals.
They’re both right. Secretariat is such a creaky, old-fashioned thing it’s impossible not to love and hate it in equal measure. A grand, glossy underdog (underhorse?) drama, it stars Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, a housewife who is forced to take over her ailing father’s Virginia stables. Aided and abetted by an ostentatious, impossibly difficult French trainer (John Malkovich) and one mean, chestnut-coloured
yearling, the reluctant lady breeder has to aim for a miracle if she wants to Save The Farm.
An odd throwback, Secretariat looks and sounds like a prestige picture from the early 1970s it depicts, an aspect that is both charming and maddeningly unreconstructed. It’s hard not to wince when the film trots out hippies that make the Scooby Doo gang look like the Manson Family. Meanwhile, the happy-clappy, Jesus-loving African-American stable hand (Nelsan Ellis) does everything but burst into Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
Our heroine is equally problematic; the normally efficient Diane Lane struggles with dull writing and a character that, years before Martha Graham and Sarah Palin would rise to the challenge, strikes a Neanderthal blow for women’s lib with pearls. Can the real Chenery (cue obligatory cameo), who stood firm in a maledominated industry, have been such a ringer for Jane Jetson?
For all that, Secretariat sneaks up from the rear. Malkovich has an absolute ball with a role that demands flamboyancy and shouting in French; a horse’s-eye view of the track conveys the dangers inherent to the pursuit; the handsomely mounted finish line dramas capture the unbridled (sorry) excitement experienced in the stands.
Expect big strings and sporting victories.
A horse of a familiar colour: Diane Lane and Secretariat