Followers of this column and/or its sister series will recall that I'm fond of the maxim "You Can Make a Good Movie Out Of Anything." And while I do indeed hold this to be a basic truth, it's a truth that could occasionally use some clarification - to wit, that you can make a good movie out of anything doesn't mean you can make any good movie out of anything. To use the most-recent example: Can you make a good movie about the founding Facebook? Absolutely - and the good movie that you can make is a darkly-comic drama about the breakdown of interpersonal relationships in the digital age. If they'd tried to make, say, a testosterone-fueled action-adventure out of the founding of Facebook, it probably wouldn't have worked.
To put it another way, there's at least one good movie inside any given subject - the job of a good filmmaker is to find it and film it. Problematically, sometimes the movie you might be trying to make isn't actually to be found within the subject or story you've gone looking in.
Consider the case of Secretariat, an autumn-hued slab of heavy-handed Oscar bait from Disney loosely retelling the history of the racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1973. A cursory glance at the film's trailer tells you basically everything you need to know: Formula Inspirational Sports Movie built around a Tough But Loving Woman politely nudging her way into the Man's World of horse racing - if you're thinking "Seabiscuit meets The Blind Side," then Disney's marketing folks have earned their supper.
The film isn't bad, and in some spots (particularly the racing scenes) it's actually pretty good. And it comes from the kind of pedigree you want behind this sort of project: a screenplay by Mike Rich of The Rookie, based on a book by horseracing expert William Nack, and directed by Randall Wallace, who specializes in "good old days" mythmaking (he wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor in addition to directing We Were Soldiers.) And, of course, it stars the luminous Diane Lane in full-tilt Sandra Bullock/Julia Roberts "Look!-I'm-Being-Assertive-Yet-Nonthreatening-And-Classy-So-Give-Me-My-Oscar!" mode with professional "wild card" John Malkovich batting cleanup ("He has awful taste in hats! Ho Ho! What a character!") There's just one problem:
Secretariat isn't interesting. At all.
Not innately, I mean. Obviously, the sheer width of the margin by which the real Secretariat dominated the track is interesting. The sport of horseracing - a strange hybrid of animal husbandry, gentlemanly tradition and gladiatorial combat - is interesting. And Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery, whom Lane portrays, certainly seems interesting. There's surely a few good movies floating around in there, that much is obvious. Trouble is, none of them appear to be the movie Disney and company wanted to make.
Whether it be Disney, the producers or even director Wallace; whoever was making the decisions, clearly wanted an inspirational sports movie in the "Classical" mold, and therein lies the main problem: That movie isn't actually in here.