Secretariat

Day late, dollar short movies, Doug Loves Movies edition, AKA I saw it on a plane.

So I’m on a plane on my way to GDC watching Secretariat.  Stupid movie lured me with a strong female lead  breaking with convention and pushing boundaries and all that. I swear I almost used the word “brassy” there.  Send help.  Also, the livery colors are very difficult to ignore. I can’t look away.

This movie is too cute for its own good. Unnecessary flashbacks. Unnecessary, simplistic monologues. Out-of-place hippie nostalgia subplot.  John Malcovich malcoviching a low-grade malcovich, en francais! But it’s charming, somehow.

To some extent, the plainspoken clichés and saccharine aphorisms are simply a product of the setting. As my old friend Adam likes to say about movies set in the mid-century, this story is from “simpler times.” Times before extended, overly specific metaphors, when you could just have your Dad tell you one thing about horse racing early in your life, and ride that nugget of philosophy to the Triple Crown!

Spoiler alert? How many people don’t know the ending to this story, or at least the ending for the horse? Every time a horse wins a few races or looks promising, the world remembers that horseracing exists, and invokes Secretariat. “Could this be the next Secretariat?” Invariably no, no it can’t be. But the chance gets the story retold, and keeps the ending in everyone’s minds.  So why not tell it again, in movie form? People liked that other horse movie, right?

And this movie does a good job of telling the story. It captures a bit of the spirit of the times. It’s also beautifully shot; the heraldry and the grace are what got me looking at the screen and plugging in my headphones in the first place.  Come for the pageantry, stay for the tears.

Recently, there was a This American Life about people who have a weird quirk: they cry at movies on airplanes, and only on airplanes. I find myself getting a bit misty in-flight sometimes, but I’d say that’s more due to the fact that I kick off most trips with a little light insomnia. My tears are at their most jerkable when I’ve not had sleep in quite some time; when I was younger and having four-to-five-day insomaniacal stretches, I’d just watch the History channel and weep openly at stories of people overcoming hardship. Someday I’ll tell you about the woman’s suffrage documentary that nearly killed me. Anyway, that was another important part of the This American life story about the plane crying: not the sufferage, the triumph. The guy said he only cried at happy moments, or moments of victory. Secretariat provides plenty of those, naturally.

Also, I like horses. This movie is full of horse magic. The horse knows. The horse is wise beyond imagining. These are all truths that most American girls carry in their blood, and immediately believe – no matter how much they’re contradicted by actual experience with horses. It’s an easy chord to strike, an easy heartstring to pluck, an easy music metaphor to overextend. At the same time, if there’s one horse in history who came close to living up to that impossible ideal of horsey perfection, it’s this one. It feels perfectly natural to sing his praises.  I’m done now.

This movie hits all the right notes (why am I doing this?!), but it has some serious flaws. You can see the full emotional arc laid out before you right from the starting gun (ok… metaphor appropriateness increasing). Every setback and hardship is a straight-up cinematic cliché, just  as every triumph is pre-ordained by history.  Secretariat is the apotheosis of predictability.

But what do I want from a movie about Secretariat; an InfernoKrusher ending?  As much as I’m in favor of the sublimely unexpected destruction of convention, it would have been a betrayal of the feel-good dream this story offers and this movie provides.

In the end,  Secretariat drew me in with pretty clothes, pretty horses, and pretty sentimentality. Still, all in all, a pretty good movie. You might want to watch it the next time you have horrible insomnia or are on a cross-country flight, preferably both.

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