Paging Disney’s Rich Ross: Whatever you do, don’t read this ‘Secretariat’ review!

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Even though Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir manages to call ‘Secretariat’ ‘a work of genius’ at one point in his new review, I don’t think we’ll be seeing Disney putting O’Hehir in its blurb ads this weekend. In fact, I suspect that Rich Ross and the top Disney brass, who’ve been touting the biopic about the 1973 Triple Crown winner as a shining example of the New Disney’s kind of classy family filmmaking, did a spit take while reading the scabrous Salon review this morning. After all, it’s not every day that a respected critic describes your studio’s most touted new film as ‘a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.’

Yikes! I almost did a spit take just writing that. Disney has been comparing ‘Secretariat’ to ‘The Blind Side,’ the crowd-pleasing 2009 hit that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar and, like ‘Secretariat,’ paid tribute to down-home America’s idealism and family values. But O’Hehir sees ‘Secretariat,’ which was directed by Randall Wallace, as promoting a much more troubling vision of the good ole USA. Here’s a condensed version of his take:

‘Secretariat’ [presents] a honey-dipped fantasy version of the American past as the Tea Party would like to imagine it, loaded with uplift and glory and scrubbed clean of multiculturalism and social discord. In the world of this movie, strong-willed and independent-minded women like [Secretariat owner Penny] Chenery are ladies first (she’s like a classed-up version of Sarah Palin feminism), left-wing activism is an endearing cute phase your kids go through ... and all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse, a hero so superhuman he isn’t human at all. ... I can’t help thinking that ‘Secretariat’ is meant as a comforting allegory, like Glenn Beck’s sentimental Christmas yarn.’

It’s hard to imagine a more rabble-rousing review -- and you should read what O’Hehir has to say about the Stepin Fetchit-style racial stereotyping in the film. But is it fair? Not having seen the film yet, I can’t offer a definitive opinion. But it will be fascinating to see whether the rest of the country’s top critics will offer such a harsh assessment of the movie, which will need a modicum of prestigious critical support to become a serious Oscar contender.


My biggest complaint about the review is that it spends a lot of time criticizing Wallace for ignoring the angst and discord of the early 1970s, the period when the film is set. O’Hehir complains that the words Nixon and Vietnam are never uttered. But so what? The film is set in the world of horse racing, not Washington politics. It bugs me when conservatives whine about religion never being mentioned in mainstream Hollywood movies, as if that should be a common topic of conversation when people are robbing banks or heading off for a bachelor party in Vegas. But it bugs me just as much to see liberal critics like O’Hehir beef about a film set in 1973 ignoring the Vietnam War, just because it happened to end in the same year that Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

It’s obvious that O’Hehir is also offended by the notion of the film’s cast being almost entirely lily white, but, hey -- it is set in the 1970’s-era world of Virginia horse farms, which, being a world of wealth and privilege, were clearly not open to many people of color. If you see the film this weekend, I’d like to hear your thoughts. O’Hehir has certainly opened up a provocative avenue of debate, but I’m a bit troubled by what feels like a sweeping over-interpretation of the film’s intent. After all, it’s one thing to be a fantasy ‘of American whiteness and power,’ as O’Hehir says of the film. It’s another thing to simply be a reflection of an insular culture. Either way, I suspect the heated debate has only just begun.