October 10, 2010
Not as good as Seabiscuit.
Part of that comes from the fact that Secretariat was never an underdog, so the emotional arc never really happens. Seabiscuit was a beautifully constructed story with not just one but four underdog stories converging on this one moment in history in which pretty much everyone was an underdog. As a result, the film had a huge amount of emotional depth.
The story of Secretariat isn’t the story of an underdog, but of Superman. Superhorse. It’s the story of witnessing feats of power and talent that you know will never happen again. The movie didn’t really tell that story though, because the underdog story is so much more familiar, and so much a part of horse racing movies (heck, so much a part of sports stories in general). So we got Penny Chenery’s story instead, and it’s a nice story, but we all know how it turns out. As a result, Secretariat was filled with contrived platitudes about proving yourself, just getting a chance to run, etc. The story felt forced.
It’s still a decent movie, adequately told, because if you’re like me you won’t be going for the story, but for the horses, and the horses are magnificent. I think there should have been more of them. The total stillness, with just Secretariat’s furnace-like breathing breaking the silence right before the start of the Kentucky Derby — beautiful.
Before the film I told my friend I was looking for two things — how it measured up against Seabiscuit, and how they covered the ’73 Belmont: They had to give a nod to “The Photo,” and they had to demonstrate how frakking unbelievably amazing Secretariat’s performance was. Secretariat won that race by 31 lengths. And he was still pulling away when he crossed the finished line. The film showed spectators in the grandstand, mouths open, astonished, mouthing the words, “That’s impossible.” Oh yes.
The movie shouldn’t have been about the underdog. It should have been about Superman.