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Think of all the great - or even just good - inspirational sports movies. Rocky. Hoosiers. Seabiscuit. Cinderella Man. We could be here all day naming them, and 99% of them would have one thing in common: They're about underdogs triumphing in the face of adversity. It's a can't miss hook, a classic story - but it's not the story of Secretariat.
Secretariat, the horse, was noteworthy for being able to run at incredible speed for incredible lengths of time - a once-in-a-lifetime genetic miracle combo of strength and endurance that still awes racing historians to this day. Remarkable, but (and here is the key) not really surprising. the Chenerys were renowned breeders, he came from a famous horse bloodline, his trainers and jockey were both well-respected in their field. In other words, "Big Red" was not Rocky Balboa, or even Apollo Creed - he was Ivan Drago.
So, if your goal is to make a classical inspirational sports movie, you aren't going to get your mandatory "victorious underdog" arc from Secretariat himself - not when his arc can be summed up as "The Horse That Was Probably Going To Win ... Did." So instead, the film opts to seek its hero in the person of Lane's Penny Chenery.
On the surface, it's a slam-dunk: Chenery, a married housewife with four children when the film opens, takes over the family farm upon her mother's passing. Her siblings and husband want her to sell the assets for a tidy profit, but she declines - motivated by a sense of filial honor to her ailing father - to instead build the business back up. The stodgy, uptight patriarchs of the male-dominated racing aristocracy harrumph and gnaw their cigars in contempt of a woman entering their ranks, and her husband grumpily insists that she's ignoring her wifely duties in the home.
A-ha! There's your angle, right? It's a feminist story - a modern woman eschewing the shackles of her mandated role and rediscovering self-fulfillment as an entrepreneur. You want adversity? Torn-between-family-and-maintaining-one's-own-identity is adversity squared. Plus you get can't-miss scenes of Diane Lane telling off those creaky old chauvinists, having the "this is the world now, deal with it" moment with the husband and - for good measure - the "thanks for opening the doors for my generation" moment with the daughters. Ooh! And it all takes place from 1968 to 1973 - think of how perfectly her story dovetails with all the social upheaval in that period: Vietnam, Watergate ... holy cow, this stuff writes itself!
Too bad the "self" it would write isn't want they wanted to make, either.
See, while Secretariat wants to remind you of Seabiscuit, the movie it wants to be is The Blind Side - a hugely-successful blockbuster that propelled Sandra Bullock to a (shamefully undeserved) Academy Award and made a fortune in both money and fawning press coverage through naked pandering to the so-called "Family Values" contingent, a market that tends to grade entertainment more for what isn't in it than what is, to whom "feminism" is practically a curse word and to whom the "social upheaval" of the story's era is a big pile of untraditional unpleasantness they'd rather not be reminded of.
And so, you have a conflict. The interesting story here is that of a woman who, effectively, leaves her husband for a horse (they ultimately divorced shortly after the Triple Crown), but that story isn't going to get you that big fat cash-dump from Blind Side's audience. What do you do? Simple: You sand the edges off it.