I’m pretty disappointed that “Secretariat” doesn’t open with long, rotating shots of Ancient Greek horse statues, one of which would transform into a real thoroughbred via camera dissolve, as if to imply the titular 1973 Triple Crown-winning stallion was born of marble and god-like perfection. I expected something akin to “Olympia” — more than “Triumph of the Will” — after reading Andrew O’Hehir’s review at Salon, with its well-circulated and well-criticized pull-quote saying thus: “in its totality ‘Secretariat’ is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.” But there really aren’t enough slow motion shots or any nostalgic references to the lost, cruel sport of horse diving to know what he was getting at if he meant the documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympics. For a “Triumph” comparison, though, there is an odd moment (dream sequence?) depicting Secretariat (aka “Big Red”) running through storm clouds that reminded me of Hitler’s descent from the heavens. But still, the statement is way too much of a reach.
“Secretariat” is simply a formulaic family film so old fashioned in its form and technique that it might as well have been directed by Eadweard Muybridge. Too bad for those of us who went in curious after O’Hehir’s review and the subsequent responses from critics like Roger Ebert and John Nolte. I’m all for over-reaching analysis, but not so much in reviews, which tend to service the consumer. Sure, any forum with a comments section is ripe for discussions. Salon, Ebert’s blog and Big Hollywood aren’t one-way communications. But I for one went to see my first horse race movie since 1988’s “Hot to Trot” thinking it was the Right’s equivalent of “Machete.” Not only does it not call for any “race war!”-level attacks, it doesn’t even have the amusement of a talking horse. Can I sue the misleading parties for the price of admission the same as I might for actual false advertising?
Well, at least I have had some things to contemplate over the last few days, enough to be rewriting my thoughts on “Secretariat” after accidentally losing a whole post addressing the whole O’Hehir/Ebert fight. Hence the lateness of this response. My lasting points have little to do with the politics of the film or its audience, though I do find Nolte’s list of popular “conservative” films interesting simply for the realization that few of them, as is the case with “Secretariat,” hardly offend the Left the way “liberal” films seem to always offend the Right. After all, even O’Hehir admits to liking the film in spite of its “right-wing ideology and xenophobia.” But how many conservative critics can appreciate “Machete”? Not that this makes either the horse race movie or the race war movie any better than the other (I like the race war movie better, myself).
What I liked about “Secretariat,” and what has been rattling inside my brain since Friday, is its interest in and underlying confusion over the idea of birthright. Part of my thinking has to do with seeing the film immediately after Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” but I focused on its dealing with the idea of where we come from when we’re born, as a reverse of Eastwood’s film’s exploration of where we go when we die. Both films are actually less about the spiritual realm(s) emerged from or passed on to than how the living think of others prior to and after life. In the case of “Secretariat,” this has to do with ancestry and inheritance, which actually pertains to both birth and death, as heritage and legacy.
Mostly the film touches on concepts of the former, such as breeding and the privilege of what we’re born into (surprisingly there is little address of the opposite, with no mention of unprivileged lives). And tradition, of course, something that was questioned a lot in the period “Secretariat” is set in. Yet while the film hints at how chance and cultural change might alter or disrupt notions of birthright, privilege, tradition, expectations of talent, gambling odds and political matters (such as the Vietnam War), it nonetheless sticks to a trust in destiny, predictability and preservation of certain conventions and values, including Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is a coin toss, but it results in a character’s favor not because of chance so much as choice, experience and knowledge of the as-yet-unborn Secretariat’s pedigree. A young character is, in every scene she’s in, a representation of the anti-war hippies of the time, but she’s ultimately celebrated for her passion, not what she’s passionate about. And anyway we know exactly how most Americans like her ended up, and how much of a difference they made (or should I say how little?).
Secretariat wasn’t exactly an underdog or an unexpected champion by any means. He went a little above and beyond his expectations, but for the most part he lived and succeeded as could be counted on based on his birthright. Still, there is my favorite scene of the film, which almost means to insinuate a level of chaos in life. It’s the moment the horse is born — not from a marble statue — and if I’m not mistaken it is indeed a real foal’s birth we’re witnessing on screen. Then little Secretariat stands up, quicker than is said to be usual, and seems to knock back into the camera. That couldn’t have been planned and it is odd that the filmmakers left it in there. Perhaps they couldn’t have a do-over with another birth and subsequent first steps? Aside from it being one of two semi-documentary elements to the film (the other being the video footage captured during the races from the jockey’s POV), it’s also the most unsteady and likely the only thing close to improvisation and an argument for life’s randomness.
Yes, “Secretariat” also touches on the issue of women’s rights and features many instances of female characters bucking up against the patriarchal norms of the era, enough that occasionally I felt I was watching episodes of “Mad Men” from back when Betty used to frequent the stables. And sure, there’s enough positive representation of blacks that Fred Thompson of all people gets to reference a blaxploitation character who didn’t even exist for another couple years. These things are easily retroactively addressed, though, without recalling how indicative of change they really are (this makes “Secretariat” very different from “Mad Men”), as a way of apologizing without actually acknowledging let alone directly apologizing. Like I said, there is some stuff I’m still working out in my head. “Secretariat” may be a rather simple and conventional movie, but it works with some complicated concepts that at least have me thinking, about that time as well as today, whether or not the filmmakers intended anything more than mindless horse racing fluff.
Any further thoughts from those of you who’ve seen it, spout them below.