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.
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.
In the final film, the actual conflict is all but nonexistent. Penny’s incursion into the Boys Club is deferential, nonthreatening, matronly and reassuring – the defanged, powered-down Sarah Palin version of feminism. The Mean Old Men grouse, but come around – only the sleazy, vaguely-ethnic owner of Secretariat’s rival horse is a Bad Guy. The bigger picture of the world outside horseracing doesn’t seem to exist other than a played-for-laughs subplot about Chenery’s daughter putting on a cheesy looking anti-war play – “Don’t worry, mom and dad – Liberalism is just some youthful-silliness, they’ll outgrow it!” The family tension somehow resolves itself offscreen – Dad shows up all smiles for the Big Race, and the fact that it actually didn’t work out never comes up.
Oh, and it goes without saying that the complaints of Penny’s husband are strictly about family-friendly neglect – he’s annoyed that she’s not home to make dinner or watch the kids, but there’s not even a hint of any more, er… “physical” needs he might be feeling denied. Of course not: She’s The Virgin Mary – beautiful (after all, it’s Diane Lane) but also incandescently sexless. How else would we know she’s a good woman, after all? It also helps sidestep the somewhat-hilarious subtext, in that we’re essentially watching a – chaste – love triangle between a man, a woman and her horse.
That somewhat drops completely, incidentally, during what can only honestly be called the film’s love scene, in which Maiden and Steed share a lingering, wordless, psychic gaze. That sort of thing is cute when it’s a little kid with the horse, i.e. Dakota Fanning in Dreamer; but here, with a decidedly grown up woman, it’s hard for the mind not to step over the line into creepier, more parody-worthy territory. Or, rather, it’ll be hard for you now that I’ve put the idea in your head – mwah ha ha ha!
The result of all this isn’t, I stress, that the film is bad. It’s watchable, breezy, and nowhere near as vile as the noxious Blind Side (though the less said about how the film regards it’s one black character, the better.) It’s very pretty, well-acted and photographed, but it just can’t shake off the fact that there’s nothing to invest in – there’s not even much point in rooting for the horse to win, because the stakes are nothing but Penny’s vaguely-defined pride. She’s already living a comfortable life before the horse story even comes into play, and she’s not in danger of being destitute if the farm goes under, so all that’s riding on the Big Race is whether our heroes will exit the film merely rich or even richer. Who cares?
In other words, it’s lightweight. Impactless. Forgettable. The cinematic equivalent of cotton candy, right down to the palpable nostalgia for a simpler time and the dubious nutritional value. It’s a perfect example of how easily you can sacrifice making a good movie by trying to instead make a “safe” one – or by pandering to a market that it just isn’t a proper fit for. Future filmmakers would be wise to study it, but only as a handsomely-shot list of “don’t”s.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.