In 1977, things were similarly gloomy. The misery index under President Jimmy Carter reflected the mood of many Americans. The president would come to speak of an America that had seen its best days and he told us we were going to have to cut back on everything, including our vision of a greater America.
Along came a big Broadway musical that year called Annie. It touched the country's unique chord of optimism and promised "the sun'll come out tomorrow." Most who saw it came away believing that the sun would, in fact, come out again and that things would eventually get better.
Now we are in the midst of another national funk and there is a new cultural rescue boat coming just in time to save us from the flood of our current depression. It is a film called Secretariat and it is far more than entertainment; it is the artistic equivalent of a caffeine jolt, a Red Bull for the spirit.
The story of the 1973 Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing winner, Secretariat is The Blind Side meets Chariots of Fire meets National Velvet. It is Annie on four legs. It is not only a story about a powerful thoroughbred, but also the story of Penny Chenery (played magnificently by Diane Lane with a strong supporting cast led by the hilarious John Malkovich). In the film, Chenery refuses to take "no" and "can't do" and "no one has ever done this before" as final answers.
Overcoming blatant sexism and condescension from a parade of men, along with opposition from her brother and the doubts of her husband, Penny has faith that her horse-Secretariat-can do what no horse had done in 25 years (and no other horse has done since Affirmed in 1978): win the Kentucky Derby and both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the latter by an astounding and unsurpassed 31 lengths.
Secretariat is one of those feel-good movies Hollywood makes every now and then to remind us it does not have amnesia about real American values and what at least Middle America-sometimes derisively referred to as flyover territory-craves.
The sound team should get an Oscar, as should Lane, Malkovich, and director Randall Wallace, whose previous films include Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, and The Man in the Iron Mask. The film also deserves an Oscar nomination for best picture. Cinematographer Dean Semler's close-ups make the audience feel as though it is riding the horse. The editing by John Wright is first-rate.
Critics of the formulaic and often violent and sex-drenched films that are the norm for Hollywood these days should support Secretariat by taking themselves and family members to see it. Nothing guarantees more films of this kind than to see it among the top grossing movies in Variety.
If you are in a funk over the current state of political and economic affairs, you will come away feeling better after seeing Secretariat. You will also believe that you can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in your own life with the kind of determination and grit displayed by Penny Chenery. Run, don't walk to the nearest multiplex. Spread the word. You'll believe again that anything is possible for Americans and America. Secretariat opens nationwide tomorrow.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.
For more, see Megan Basham's WORLDmag.com Web Extra "Finding joy in Secretariat."
And look for more coverage on the movie Secretariat ("When Disney was Disney") and writer/director Randall Wallace ("A different calling") in the Oct. 23 issue of WORLD, which will be posted on WORLDmag.com Friday, Oct. 8.