Movie Review - Secretariat

Randall Wallace
Walt Disney Pictures
for brief mild language

“Once upon a…”

Okay, wait. Stop. Family discussion time! Children, how could the Tweedy family have better handled the situations they faced in this movie?

That would be kind of an unusual way to go about movie-watching, wouldn’t it? Even aside from the fact that you wouldn’t ordinarily know enough about the Tweedy family to be able to discuss it meaningfully prior to the opening credits, tradition seems to say that these sorts of family talks are best saved until after you’ve seen the movie… and liked it… and already let it influence your children… and forgotten half of the negative elements you wanted to discuss. Yes, I suppose it could be a lot worse. You could fail to discuss worldview issues at all. But doesn’t it seem like a family that already had good communication going on, that already had the biblical answers to most of the problems the movie characters were dealing with, and that, oh, maybe had a movie review that could let them know about the specifics of the rest of those problems in time to get the biblical answers—doesn’t it seem like that would have to be a better situation?

Secretariat might be enjoyable for families who already have all of those things. For families who don’t, it might not be such a great idea.

At the end of the movie (another strange way to begin a movie review), the text about the real-life owner of Secretariat says, “Penny Chenery [Tweedy] saved her family and her farm.” Okay. Family discussion question #1: From what did she save her family? If you can come up with an answer other than “nothing,” you’re a step ahead of me.

Penny did save her farm, even in the face of a multi-million dollar inheritance tax, which is definitely commendable. But, rather than sell Secretariat, a successful short-distance racehorse, Penny refuses to go along with the plans of her brother, her husband, and the man who had offered to buy Secretariat for $8,000,000, and gambles that Secretariat will be able to win all three of the most competitive long-distance races in the country—something no other horse had been able to do for the last twenty-five years. If Secretariat lost even one of the races, his value would diminish to less than what was required to pay the taxes, leaving Penny, her husband and her brother in debt for millions of dollars they had no other way of paying. Family discussion question #2: What would biblical wisdom (and commands, like the ones in Ephesians 5:22-24) require of Penny in this situation? Not, I think, what she actually did.

Again, positive: she did save the farm. Negative: she did it by making the farm, not her family, her top priority. At the only point in the film when Penny experiences any doubt as to what she should do, she spends a few minutes in the usual remembering-what’s-really-important frame of mind, and then turns to her two friends and says, “I am not going to live my life with regret! I’m going to see that horse run!” Family discussion question #3: Does abandoning your spouse and children for the sake of a career (no matter how inspirational a career) make you more or less likely to live with regret? I don’t mean that Penny refused to have any contact with her family, but she went way beyond workaholic—she left her family in Colorado and went to be a workaholic in Virginia. Of course, it doesn’t look that way in the movie. In fact, for some reason the movie continues to call her a “housewife”, even after three years of only visiting her house and husband occasionally, and living more in the business world than the domestic one. Family discussion question #4: Just how much can your career consume your life before the term “housewife” (or, perhaps, “keeper at home”) stops being appropriate?

And Penny’s career does affect her marriage. The tension between her and her husband Jack Tweedy is usually fairly mild, but it’s there from just a few minutes into the film, when she asks Jack if she can stay at the farm for a few more days—which quickly transforms into telling him that she is going to stay another two weeks—which turns into Jack hanging up the phone on her—which is followed by a small conflict over Penny’s using her maiden name again—which leads to cool silences on his part and suddenly calling the horse “part of our family now” on her part. And, of course, the inheritance tax controversy followed that. The movie downplays it a bit, but Penny’s devotion to Secretariat ate her marriage alive. She and Jack obtained a divorce in 1974—just a year after the movie ends1—owing, in Penny’s real-life words, to “a conflict of careers.”2 In what sense, then, could an honest, rational person say that she “saved her family”?

It still doesn’t answer the question, but I think Disney meant for there to be a positive lesson or two in Penny’s relationship with her daughters. There’s no rebellion or bitterness, only mutual support. Good, right? Sure, except for one little detail: Penny and Jack Tweedy are evidently political conservatives, and their daughters are high-school hippies—peace signs, “No War” posters, headbands and all. And the way the family handles that little detail ranges from not good to… eh, still not good. The girl’s anti-war retort, “If there’s a price, how is it freedom?” gets an unsatisfactory “Answer that and you become an adult,” from Jack, who is unwilling to compromise his position, yet unable to defend it. Not good. On the other hand, her protest play—smuggled into the school under the label of “art”—while completely inconsistent with her mother’s political views, is nevertheless given Penny’s wholehearted support (and enough screen time to get through a verse and a half of Silent Night with more peace signs and protest posters). “Dad says it’s commie cr-p.” Mom says, “Our political leanings can change, but our need to do what we think is right—that doesn’t. And I’m proud of you.” Proud of her, it kind of feels like, for being the best pacifist, socialist activist she can be… even though it’s wrong. Still not good. The hippie subplot gets almost as much attention as Secretariat does between races, and while families who have rock-solid relationships and extremely similar beliefs and standards may be able to have a good discussion beforehand and focus on the parts of the movie that actually have to do with the horse, families who already have conscience conflicts going on will probably have a lot harder time fending off the relativistic overtones. Family discussion question #5: How should parents and children with conflicting belief systems support each other’s position… or not?

One really positive element: The movie opens with a quote from the Bible. Definitely a good way to start. The only thing I want to point out about that section (and it’s only a tiny little thing) is that the narrator says, “The Bible tells us that God answered,” rather than just “God answered,” technically avoiding an explicit claim of the truth of the Bible (so, don’t start sending your tithe to Disney). There is some cultural Christianity in the film, which probably does more good than harm in this case, since at least viewers get to hear “O happy day / When Jesus washed my sins away” playing in the background—even if it’s not something we’re actually supposed to pay much attention to. I think the well-meaning “I don’t know about the ways of God, but…” (which, when you think about it, isn’t exactly a positive thing), the “Amen!” (which, unfortunately, follows Penny’s mixed-up line about not living in regret), and the “Oh, glory!” exclamation at the end of the horserace (okay, so that one’s probably safe) are meant to appeal to the Christians in the audience more than the song is. I really don’t think the secular-sounding “I’ll Take You There” playing in the background was supposed to have any positive religious connotations… at all. Depending on how it’s taken, Penny’s hope that her father (who has just died) will be able to see the race may not be one hundred percent aligned with some viewers’ concept of the hereafter. There are a number of casual references to luck.

Hints at feminism come up every now and then, whether in Penny’s deliberately walking into a gentlemen-only club, or in the phrase, “what a real woman is—what it is to believe in yourself,” or in the most definitely authoritative position her career places her in over men. Family discussion question #6: How can women function in a position of authority over men (even, say, ones employed by her husband) without drifting into a domineering attitude?

And, by the way, this is a movie about a race horse. Horse racing is therefore a fairly major theme. A jockey’s “I risk my life every time I climb on a [race] horse,” might be another good point for discussion. Family discussion question #7: Is it biblically acceptable to risk your life for a game?

Incidentally, the jockey’s flare of temper in hitting a taxicab with his crutch may not be the best example of manly virtue.

There are a couple of inappropriate references to hell*, a nonchalant use of “idiot”, that instance of “cr-p”, of course, and a barely audible “Gosh”. A brief but crude line mentions a few things that a rival horse trainer supposedly couldn’t train, including, but not limited to, “his own bowel movements.” The age I have in mind for the audience probably isn’t going to go around repeating the phrase “getting your butt whipped” just because it sounded clever, and I’m not sure how many younger viewers would even understand the innuendo in a reporter’s statement that his paper previously “had me covering politicians. I wanted to write about the other end of the horse.”

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:

Alcohol is briefly mentioned and briefly partaken of, and few drinks could either be tea or something stronger (for those who may be concerned about it, an “Arnold Palmer” is half lemonade and half iced tea). A brief reference is made to the movie Super Fly, a movie which not only came out after the date of the reference, but apparently glorified drug dealing (so don’t trust Secretariat to pick out your next family movie). Gambling at the races is briefly implied.

Sexual Content:
One of the reasons I am so confident that “I’ll Take You There” wasn’t actually supposed to inspire any thoughts of heaven is that people who have their minds fixed on heavenly things don’t usually rub their backsides together when they’re dancing. Penny’s daughter is seen in short shorts in one scene, in a somewhat low-cut nightdress in another, and sleeveless tops throughout. A man is seen without a shirt on television, and a woman is briefly seen in what feels like similar attire at a dance. Penny gets one kiss on the cheek from her husband, and several of them from her French-Canadian trainer and jockey.

Emotionally Intense Content:
Viewers who have recently experienced a loss may find the scene in which Penny’s unconscious father dies in a hospital room harder to watch than most people will. Viewers who are extremely sensitive to the well being of animals may be distressed to hear about a horse having literally burst its heart in a race.

Aside from content issues, Secretariat is one of those films that’s going to be a fantastic movie to some people, and a decidedly mediocre movie to others. That the movie, which looked like it was going to be mostly about a horse, turns out to be mostly about the horse’s owner, could take it in either direction. That you actually spend about as much time focusing on the horse’s owner’s daughter—who’s living in another state—as you do on the horse itself, seems to lean a little more heavily on the mediocre side of the scale. It’s a Disney feel-good movie with a somewhat predictable lead actress. The soundtrack wasn’t particularly interesting. The camera work had a few noticeably weak moments. The scene when Secretariat urinates on a reporter is probably consistent with life involving livestock, but still unnecessary. The passage of time is hard to follow. For some reason, the kids don’t seem to have aged any in the four years between the beginning and the ending. It could be a lot worse. Back on the positive side, it is, after all, a true story about a horse (at least mostly true).

I could see a lot of families enjoying this movie, but, again, families who can discuss the movie’s problems ahead of time will be a lot better off; and families who are currently dealing with parent-child conflict might be better off to avoid this movie until they get their own problems discussed. The themes in Secretariat are, I believe, too subtly presented for children under the age of twelve to walk away from it unscathed—that is, not believing that the hippie culture is actually a good thing, for example.

* The first instance of PG language is when Penny is talking with her father’s horse trainer, and says, “That would be committing fraud.” He replies, “Who the h--- do you think you are?” The second instance is after Secretariat has lost his first race and the new trainer Lucien is berating the jockey. Penny says that the horse should have done better than that, and Lucien follows up the sentiment with “What the h---…”


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