The Palin-ing of Secretariat


Here is a strange thing. Secretariat, a quietly faith-laced Disney movie from Christian director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and Christian screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie), has bizarrely been catching politically tinged flak even more violent than last year’s inspirational sports film, The Blind Side. It also has an ironic if not improbable defender: Roger Ebert.


Take Jeffrey Wells’s comment at Hollywood Elsewhere: “I didn’t hate it—the racing footage is wonderful—but I loathe the white-a** Republican atmosphere. As I wrote last Sunday, ‘You never forget you’re watching a Randall Wallace family-values movie for the schmoes.’”

Notice that he doesn’t say there is a political white Republican agenda. It’s just the atmosphere, the cultural milieu, that he loathes. This isn’t politics per se, it’s mere cultural tribalism: Wells is aware that this is a movie made by people who are different from him in ways he disdains, and he’s going to disdain them for being different even if no substantial reasons for disdain present themselves.

However, Wells approvingly quotes critic Andrew O’Hehir, who perceives the hidden agenda in Secretariat—and holy smokes, is it ugly. I’ve appreciated O’Hehir’s work for years, but this review really pulled me up short. He writes:

I enjoyed [Secretariat] immensely, flat-footed dialogue and implausible situations and all. Which doesn’t stop me from believing that in its totality “Secretariat” is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl, and all the more effective because it presents as a family-friendly yarn about a nice lady and her horse.

Did he say master race propaganda? He did—and there’s more …

Although the troubling racial subtext is more deeply buried here than in “The Blind Side” (where it’s more like text, period), “Secretariat” actually goes much further, presenting a honey-dipped fantasy vision 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 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 (until they learn the hard truth about inheritance taxes), and all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse, a hero so superhuman he isn’t human at all.

Well, of course Secretariat “isn’t human at all”—he’s a horse. (Of course, of course.) And yes, he was a superhorse, and yes, all Americans—right-thinking and otherwise—were united in their adoration back in 1973. There is something twisted about leaping from that to “master race propaganda.” Behind this I suspect what could be called Godwin’s fallacy: the dangerous habit of critically comparing the other side to Nazis.

I think the most telling bit is O’Hehir’s reference to Diane Lane’s character, Penny Chenery, as “a classed-up version of Sarah Palin feminism.” For one thing, is there something wrong with “Sarah Palin feminism”? Is it Palin’s feminism O’Hehir objects to—the can-do, independent, have-it-all, public style that Camille Paglia has praised—or her political views?

And for another, O’Hehir’s tone brims with the obssessive fury of a political junkie who is just so beside himself with rage at Glenn Beck and Fox News, and is so livid at the thought of the November elections, that not only can he not put the subject aside long enough to enjoy an inspirational movie about a nice lady with a fast horse, he is outraged at the thought that anyone else might, either.

On the other hand, one great thing about O’Hehir’s rant was that it prompted an inspired tirade from Roger Ebert (who loved the film). Some highlights:

Andrew O’Hehir of Salon is a critic I admire, but he has nevertheless written a review of “Secretariat” so bizarre I cannot allow it to pass unnoticed … we do not find proof that Obama is a Muslim Communist born in Kenya. No, the news is worse than that. It involves Secretariat, a horse who up until now we innocently thought of as merely very fast. We learn the horse is a carrier not merely of Ron Turcotte’s 130 pounds, but of Nazism, racism, Tea Party ideology and the dark side of Christianity.

Oh, and I forgot the Ku Klux Klan: “The movie itself is ablaze with its own crazy sense of purpose,” O’Hehir writes, “…as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.” …

I question if a single American, right-thinking or left-thinking, thought even once of Secretariat as a Nietzschean Überhorse. Nor did many consider the Triple Crown victories as a demonstration of white superiority, because race horses (which seem to enjoy winning for reasons of their own) are happily unaware of race. …

Wait. There is yet another sinister subtext to be exposed in the film. O’Hehir mentions that Randall Wallace, who directed the film, “is one of mainstream Hollywood’s few prominent Christians, and has spoken openly about his faith and his desire to make movies that appeal to ‘people with middle-American values’.” To which I respond: I am a person with middle-American values, and the film appealed to me. …

When O’Hehir says Wallace is “one of mainstream Hollywood’s few prominent Christians,” what exactly does he mean by that? That one is too many? Surely the Hollywood mainstream has room for several prominent Christians? Surely it is permitted for Wallace to speak openly about his faith? …

Many of the comments in Ebert’s blog are almost equally entertaining. Eventually O’Hehir himself commented—and Ebert responded to his comment. Does their exchange illuminate or obscure the issues? What do you think? Comment at

Horses, Oddments & Humor, Roger Ebert