Secretariat: A Little Light in the Hoof

Secretariat, the movie about the legendary horse, opens today, Friday, October 8th. I was pretty excited when I first saw the trailers and was equally excited when I was offered a chance to see a preview. I like a good racehorse story. To me, they're athletes, just horsey. Secretariat, although named after the horse, tells the story of owner Penny Chenery and how through her tenacity and belief, the horse's racing career saves the family farm. This is, of course, perfect Disney fare. Starring a drama-worthy cast - Diane Lane, John Malkovich, James Cromwell - the movie was uplifting, the performances were solid, and there was a nice balance of fairly benign tensions running through the film. In general, it was a good family film.

However, I feel Disney missed an opportunity to turn it into a great film. The story felt like Secretariat Lite: all the major points were there (a few big ones left out but that's Hollywood for you), there was a nice summary of the horse's career, but quite a few things were glossed over, such as how hard it must have been for a female owner in that time, particularly one who often had to leave her kids to do it. This was especially surprising after seeing trailers that implied the movie was just as much about Penny Chenery's struggle as a female owner as it was about Secretariat. Rather than truly portraying the time period (1969 - 1973), the movie felt like it gave a nod to the period and then washed it with a modern PC brush. Political and social tensions were completely dismissed. I think the strongest abuses Penny Chenery fell victim to was being called a "housewife" and having her husband frown at her. Given the time period (and the pressure you see Moms under even today), I highly doubt it was that pleasant.

The other element I missed was emphasis on how Secretariat was remarkable as a horse. Disney is billing Secretariat as "the impossible true story" but there wasn't much explanation as to why Secretariat's wins were so historic. There was more angst about saving the farm than the fact that Secretariat was an unbelievable world-record-breaking horse.

Once again, it was a good, medium picture. I liked it, but I saw the potential for so much more. Personally, I don't think "drama" and "family film" are mutually exclusive. I'd like to see Disney less hesitant about building tension into the actual story. Then maybe we wouldn't have to sit through so many slow-motion close ups of horses trying to create the same thing.

P.S. Here's an interesting piece about the real Penny Chenery and what did and didn't make it into the film.


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