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Secretariat (2010)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

With an early 70s, down-home southern feel, Secretariat tells more than the story of the greatest ever racehorse. Most centrally, it connects us with the difference between pursuing safe, self-interested pragmatism and risky, dangerous beauty. It’s not a clear-cut dichotomy, which makes the film’s exploration more compelling — but only if you are actively looking under the surface of the film. On the surface, the film’s questions center more on stock treatments of respect for women, loyalty to parental legacy, dealing with hard times, family relations, making the big deal, and pursuing a dream. Each of these are brought together in the central questions: What reason for our actions can justify placing ourselves at odds with those around us? At odds with the “sensible thing to do”? To what degree should pursuit of an “at odds” course of action depend on having confidence in a “positive” outcome?

The central questions are present in the film, though not steadily throughout the film. It’s not clear, actually, that the filmmakers recognize the undercurrent of these questions, which lessens their influence and increases the active engagement required to feel them. It’s worth the work. The formulaicness of Secretariat’s filmcraft also increases the work required. Although the filmcraft is not poor, less-than-stellar editing and acting (John Malkovich is, mostly, a notable exception) leads to several thin emotional bridges between scenes and themes. But, no matter: If you stay focused on the beauty of the horse, which the film wonderfully grounds in text from Job 39:19-25, it can carry you through these thin points.

If you’re willing to put in a bit of active seeking below the surface, Secretariat can well support exploration of important questions about the motivations underlying our choices. If not, it’s still a charming, enjoyable, and valuable story about overcoming challenges and winning the big prize. Secretariat was an amazing horse.

Penny Chenery Tweedy grew up on a horse farm in Virginia. Many years later, when she lives in Denver, caring for her own family, her mother dies. Returning to her parents’ farm, she learns the extent to which the farm’s business affairs have gone downhill. Seeing her father, who increasingly suffers from dementia, and working with Miss Ham, her father’s long-time administrative assistant, Penny is gradually drawn to the farm more deeply and emotionally. What starts with challenging a suspicious employee grows into Penny’s full-on operation of the farm. And then comes the foal, Red, and all of the beauty and possibilities he represents. Running time: 116 min.

The film’s greatest intensity is close-up, thundering horse hooves and the suspense of a horse race. There is very little objectionable content other than a tad of the mildest of language.

  • Director: Randall Wallace
  • Screenplay: Mike Rich
  • Leads: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth
  • Cinematography: Dean Semler
  • Music: Nick Glennie-Smith

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