Given my curmudgeonly nature, I generally stay away from heartwarming movies. I'm particularly put off by their soundtracks. When the music swells, there's your signal to get inspired. Humbug! So I was chagrined when my wife Renee, an animal lover, wanted to see "Secretariat." I imagined that its elements would force me to exit the theater screaming: a woman and her horse, done up by Disney to boot. Renee and I have a deal, however, which is that we will see whatever movie one of us wants to catch. Since I formulated this deal, I could hardly beg off. Besides, the last movie we saw was my choice, the harrowing, excellent Israeli movie "Lebanon," reviewed here.
One factor that "Secretariat" had in its favor is that it wasn't an uplifting tale concocted by the dream factory. There was a real horse named Secretariat who won the Triple Crown. The horse was owned by Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), who was living in the Denver suburbs with her lawyer husband (Dylan Walsh) and four children in 1969. Chenery looked every bit the June Cleaver character made famous by the recently departed Barbara Billingsley. She returns to her Virginia home, a horse farm, to attend her mother's funeral and take care of her father. Very quickly, she has to make decisions about what to do about the farm and this unusual young horse. With her husband and brother urging her to sell or lose everything, Chenery stands her ground and stakes everything on Secretariat.
Chenery becomes the embodiment of determination to the point that her character becomes somewhat one-dimensional, but psychological complexity is not the point here. The details of who cared for her children are also rendered irrelevant to reaching the top of the equestrian world. Chenery's drive also has a feminist aspect, as she takes on the male-dominated horse-racing establishment, including fending off a rival owner's sexist comments during press conferences.
I surprised myself being moved by Chenery's staring into the eyes of Secretariat in communion. And even though Secretariat's victories are legendary, the depiction of his amazing feats was exciting. So I saw "Secretariat" and must admit, albeit grudgingly, that I enjoyed it. Even found it kind of inspiring, soundtrack and all.