This is a total feel good movie of the year, sure to be a strong Oscar contender. The story of one of the most amazing race horses in history, whose speed in winning the triple crown has never been repeated. But really, it’s the story of Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, a story of American egalitarianism triumphing over class, gender, aristocracy and hatred. Penny is portrayed as a middle class housewife who, with her brother, inherits her rich parent’s horse farm. Because of the inherent oppression of inheritance taxes, she is pushed to sell the farm to pay the taxes. She says no. Then to sell Secretariat to pay the taxes. She says No. And then to get out because she is a woman in a man’s world, to go back to her kids and raise her family instead of engaging in successful business. But she keeps pushing through for her dream, a dream to make something of her life, to find her passion by raising Secretariat to be the champion he became, from his underdog beginnings as a second choice bred horse. Her husband is shown bothered by her absence from the family as she obsessively pursues her dream miles away from home, but he gets over it and the family is never shown to be adversely affected by it all. Sure, she misses some school plays, but it’s all depicted as worth it. In a way, this woman is the ultimate feminist who has it all: a good family, a successful business and a priority of her own dreams. She fights the establishment of white male power with the egalitarian American “never give up” spirit and wins.
The movie starts with a passage from the book of Job about the power and beauty of the horse in God’s scheme of things. And the movie ends with a gospel song as Secretariat wins. These spiritual elements add a deeper sense to the theme of the movie, though wind up appearing somewhat artificial due the complete lack of spirituality in Penny and her family’s story. Is redemption really only about achieving personal dreams and bucking the establishment? Is salvation really just about triumphing over cultural prejudices or over personal character flaws? I say this because there seemed to be a lack of this personal dimension to the story that would make it rise above a shallow external victory of personal dreams into a triumph of the human spirit.