Secretariat (2010, movie review)

Reciting from the book of Job, playing “Oh Happy Day,” and employing double meanings to the word “race,” Secretariat attempts to be much more than a predictable movie about a housewife with guts and a very special racehorse. In some ways it even succeeds. Eve Franklin previewed Secretariat and shares her critical thinking.

Read the family-friendliness rating and review of Secretariat from Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn.

Starting with Scripture

“Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with a mane?
“Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
“He paws in the valley, and rejoices in his strength;
He goes out to meet the weapons.
“He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;
And he does not turn back from the sword.
“The quiver rattles against him,
The flashing spear and javelin.
“With shaking and rage he races over the ground,
And he does not stand still at the voice of the trumpet.” (Job 39:19-24)

I’m not just starting this post out with that Scripture because I’m blogging about a racehorse movie, but as those who have seen the movie know, that’s how Secretariat starts. There are not too many movies these days that start and end with a direct quote of Scripture, but this one does, and it sets a spiritual tone to this biopic that not many will expect.

Not only does Secretariat start with the voice of the main character explaining that when Job complained to God about tough times, God answers with this statement about a horse, but there are subtle hints about faith and not-so-subtle hints throughout the entire movie about rejoicing in your circumstances. When Secretariat’s owner suffers a setback in raising money to keep her horse racing, the song “Oh, Happy Day!” plays with all the lyrics about Jesus washing sins away. The song then plays again near the end of the movie.

Gambles

So is Secretariat a movie about a racehorse, or about a housewife with a lot of guts? I went into the movie thinking it would be a story about the housewife and faith, and for the most part that held true. But it was also a movie about the greatest racehorse of all time. The story is well balanced, well written, and well implemented. The overall theme is that life is a gamble and requires a lot of faith, but you have to step out and participate.

You’ll never know how far you’ll go unless you run.

I suspect the director, Randall Wallace, was consciously alluding throughout Secretariat to the race that the writer of Hebrews refers to.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

Penny Chenery tells her horse that she has realized that she has run her race, now it is time for him to run his. Perhaps the theme is dealt with a heavy hand, but it definitely gets noticed, and it is an obvious sort of allusion for a story about a racehorse. Though the message is not overtly Christian in the movie, I can see how someone might say that a Christian was behind it.

Suspense?

How does a movie create suspense when everyone viewing it knows how it ends? After seeing Secretariat, I’m still asking that question. Not because this movie did it badly, but because it managed to do it to some degree, but fell short of true suspense. The build up for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes contain the kind of suspense that would be nail-biting for viewers—if they didn’t know that Secretariat wins. With the screening audience that I viewed the movie with, Secretariat did succeed in generating rousing cheers whenever Big Red won.

I, of course, loving the irony of it all, mentioned to my seatmates when Big Red pulls ahead and wins the Derby, “Wow, that was a surprise.”I received funny looks for a minute before they understood my sarcasm.

However, I’ve watched the occasional televised horse race through the years, and I’ve never known them to take so long in real life. At least with horse racing, the anticipation happens before the race because the race itself goes by so fast it’s usually over before you’re ready. In Secretariat, the only race that seemed to flow in real time was the Preakness. This race is seen televised in the Tweedy home where the family crowds in front of the TV and reacts to the race as it plays out in real time. Despite the fact that you know Secretariat will win the Triple Crown, there is some suspense introduced into the plot over whether Penny can raise the money to pay the inheritance taxes so that she doesn’t have to sell her horse for less than he’s worth. There are closer interpersonal suspenses, as well. Yes, the movie is predictable, but still entertaining.

The era

Secretariat does a decent job of portraying the era of the events. Not only do the costumes bring back the ’70s in all their lack of fashion, but you see the hippy culture and the war protesters of the era as characterized through Penny’s daughter. When Penny’s husband makes an annoyed comment about Kate’s not understanding the cost of freedom, Kate promptly replies, “If it has a cost, how can it be free?”

I was in my first year of life when Secretariat won the Triple Crown, but I’ve grown up very adverse to war protesting. Having a father who is a Vietnam veteran, I was upset to see this girl protest a war that she obviously didn’t understand, but I can agree that the movie honestly portrayed the way the young people of that era acted on their beliefs, and despite my own adverse reaction, I can admire a mother who tells her daughter, “You’ve got to live what you believe.” I just wish that we could have seen parents actually teaching their children proper worldview instead of letting them express the common view of the era with very little censure.

A matter of priorities

As is so often the case in movies today, Secretariat presents a “we can do it” attitude that shows people solving problems for themselves and being entirely self-sufficient. Despite the supposed spiritual overtones of the movie, the overall philosophy presented is not at all Christian. Rather than “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), Penny Chenery is a headstrong, confident woman who will stand up to any man and face down impressive odds with little help from anyone. She solves her own problems and makes her own way, often at her family’s expense. In fact, the biggest problem that I had with the movie was how Penny seems to be praised for abandoning her family to save her father’s breeding farm and putting all her effort into seeing Secretariat become the great horse she knew he could be. It wasn’t that she had those ambitions, but that she proceeded with them against the wishes of her husband and at the expense of her children, spending much of her time away from the family that relied on her as much, if not more, than the horse.

If anyone puts Penny Chenery Tweedy forward as a good role model for girls, I would have to disagree. How she set her priorities in life is between her and God, but I think we need to caution the girls in our lives about making good decisions when faced with this kind of choices. Which was the most important priority in Penny’s life, really? Her husband and children, or a racehorse?

Will you like it?

If you like horses, you’ll probably enjoy Secretariat. It portrays a historical event in an interesting way and is wholesome and clean for family viewing. Enjoy it, but don’t forget to think critically.

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About the Author
I’m an avid reader and movie lover. There’s not much I like better than reading a book and then seeing the movie version, or watching a movie and then reading the novelization. I have a degree in English literature, which means that at some point in my life I actually received grades for discussing and writing essays about literature. Can’t get much better than that, right? Well, it can. Who needs to pull apart the deep inner workings of dusty old classics when there’s such wonderful fodder in the mass media that people watch (and read) everyday? Above all, I believe that I can’t do much better in this life than in pointing my friends toward a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything makes perfect sense when viewed from a Christian worldview. Even when the intent of the writer was something entirely different, everything can point to our Creator God. He is the foundation for every logical thought, the judge of all evil, and the author of all beauty.

7 comments on Secretariat (2010, movie review)

  1. Brad Carr says:

    Hey thanks for an insightful review. This movie didn&#039t appeal to me at all, but after reading your review, I may give in to my wife&#039s requests and see it. I&#039ve listen to a few of the Are You Just Watching podcasts. I enjoy the work you and Daniel put into the shows. Keep up the good work.

  2. Dortha says:

    Essays like this are so imopartnt to broadening people’s horizons.

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