Ebert on O’Hehir’s ‘Conspiracy Theory’ About the Christian Director of ‘Secretariat’

Posted on October 8, 2010 at 7:36 am

Roger Ebert has a superb rebuttal to Andrew O’Hehir’s review of “Secretariat” in Salon. Ebert is careful to say that he respects O’Hehir but that this review goes far beyond the usual disagreements about taste and aesthetics. O’Hehir read into the film a political and religious agenda that cannot be supported, simply because the director is a Christian.

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. I don’t find anywhere in “Secretariat” the ideology he discovers there. In its reasoning, his review resembles a fevered conspiracy theory.

O’Hehir criticizes the film for omitting other events of the era though an important plot element concerns the main character’s support for her daughter’s protest of the Vietnam War and a theme of the film is her struggle against the sexism of the time. He actually calls the film “a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl” and brings in references not just to Nazis but to the Klu Klux Klan and to the Tea Party and Glenn Beck.
It’s bad enough to criticize a movie for failing to address every single issue of its era (even if that were possible in a two-hour time slot, it would bury the narrative). It is preposterous to criticize the movie for giving an “evil” name to the rival horse when that was the actual horse’s name. It is offensive to attribute malevolent intentions to a film because the director is Christian. And it is even more offensive to claim that values like dedication and the pursuit of excellence are exclusive to any one religion or political party.
Ebert writes:

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. This news just in: There are probably more liberals with middle-American values than conservatives, especially if your idea of middle-American values overlaps with the Beatitudes, as mine does.

NOTE: O’Hehir has responded to Ebert, saying that “my review of the film was willfully hyperbolic, even outrageous, in hopes of getting people to look at a formulaic Disney sports movie through fresh eyes.” Because there is no easy way to link to his response directly and I believe he makes some good points, I am going to include the full text of his post and Ebert’s reply here:

By Andrew O’Hehir on October 8, 2010 2:32 AM
Well, gee. Thanks, Roger. (I think.)
I’m not eager to get into a public dispute with you over a Disney movie that you found “straightforward” and “lovingly crafted” and I found weird, fake and inexplicably disturbing, which may be all this boils down to. The world isn’t likely to care much, and will render its verdict without our help.
I appreciate that you opened and closed this piece with some kind words, and I have great respect for you as a man and a critic. That said, I think the only place where we agree here is when you say, “O’Hehir’s reading is wildly eccentric.” I’ll cop to that happily — my review of the film was willfully hyperbolic, even outrageous, in hopes of getting people to look at a formulaic Disney sports movie through fresh eyes. I know I don’t have to explain the function or uses of hyperbole to you, since it’s a technique you often employ (here and elsewhere). My hyperbole in the “Secretariat” review was supposed to be funny, and also to provoke a response. I appear to have succeeded brilliantly with the second part! The results on “funny” are more mixed.
Now, clearly I could have written a more “normal” review, in which I said something like: “Secretariat” was kind of fun to watch, but it bugged me. It presents a prettied-up, phony-baloney vision of America in the early ’70s, in a transparent effort to appeal to the “family-values” crowd who ate up “The Blind Side” — people who want a comforting and unchallenging movie without any sex or swearing. There’s nothing wrong with that as a way to make a buck, but this example is ultra-tame, scrubbed clean of any genuine conflict or drama, and I pretty much think it’s crap.
Now, I gather you would have disagreed with that, and pretty sharply, but I very much doubt you’d have bothered writing several thousand words ripping me apart. Now perhaps you see the genius of my plan!
Seriously, that is what I think — and pretty much what I said, albeit in somewhat stronger language. In your haste to take me down, I think you frequently read my gag lines as being deadly serious, mix or conflate different aspects of my argument (e.g., I don’t say or think anything about the horse being evil, or representing evil), and confuse events in real life with what we see in the film.
Now then: I do indeed compare “Secretariat” to “master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl,” a deliberately outrageous claim that, I suspect, pissed you off right at the outset. Let me elaborate a little. In my view, the most effective propaganda movies are not the ones about dudes with guns that espouse militarism, or the Soviet boy-meets-tractor films, or the Nazi cartoons about Jews. Those are too obvious. The most effective kind of propaganda depicts normal life, or rather an idealized vision of normal life, one that (as one of my readers put it) “makes a particular worldview seem natural, right and appealing.” Viewed that way, of course, a very large proportion of Hollywood movies could be considered propaganda, which is a subject for another time. (The shoe may fit.)
Of course it’s offensive to compare a contemporary filmmaker to Riefenstahl — although she was unquestionably a great director — but I never said or suggested that Randall Wallace had consciously or deliberately created a film whose primary purpose was ideological. It’s more like the ideology of reassurance and comfort and gorgeous images — what I refer to as the “fantasia of American whiteness and power,” which is, yes, going kind of far — is so built into this kind of movie you can’t get it out. I do, however, see Wallace’s desire to appeal to Christian audiences and a never-enumerated set of “middle-American values” as politically coded, at least to some degree. (It’s like they’re coded if you want them to be; of course he’s happy with secular left-wing types watching the movie too.)
You believe, or suggest, that I damn the film for not noticing Vietnam or Watergate, but that isn’t quite right. As I think I make clear, I was struck by the oddness of the film’s idealized, “Ozzie and Harriet” portrait of American life, which feels more like the ’50s, being set in one of the most tumultuous periods of American history. That’s a suggestive fact, an element of the overall picture, not an indictment. You indulge in some hyperbole of your own in suggesting that I accuse Penny Chenery (the movie character? The real person? I am not sure) of being an evil right-winger, when I never say, and do not know, anything about her politics. Watch out for the “O’Hehirian Riefenstahlian TeaPartyite” clique, though –we’re on the rise!
I could go on, and I guess I will just a little: I never say or suggest that anyone considered the Triple Crown victories “as a demonstration of white superiority.” (I honestly don’t believe you don’t get the “Überhorse” joke. Secretariat was a product of eugenics if any living creature ever was.) You suggest that I attack Randall Wallace for his religious faith, but I do not, and you cite nothing to support this. You say that I see “a repository of Christianity (of the wrong sort, presumably)” in the film, when I say clearly that religion plays almost no role in the story. On the other hand, it’s simply a fact that Disney is marketing the film to Christian conservatives, and neither of us is required to have an opinion about it. And I’m not sure what you mean when you say you refuse to allow me to define the film as “Tea Party-friendly.” Is Sarah Palin not allowed to like it?
On the film’s racial issues: You suggest that I am demeaning the real-life Eddie Sweat, Secretariat’s groom. I say nothing about Eddie Sweat. I am discussing a fictional character, the only black person ever seen in the film, who is presented as subordinate, unreflective, constantly cheerful and uniquely well equipped to communicate with an animal. Could there be such a person? Of course. But in the context of my perception of the film’s total universe, this feels like an unwholesome and old-fashioned stereotype (for which there is a borderline-offensive name I will not use).
Similarly, I have a tough time believing you don’t get what I’m trying to say about the Pancho Martin character. Those who reported on the Triple Crown at the time have said that the real Pancho Martin was neither talkative nor boastful, and had no particular adversarial relationship with Penny Chenery. That stuff we saw in the movie did not happen. But the filmmakers have taken the one faintly “ethnic” or non-American character in the movie, and made him thoroughly despicable. What was that? An accident? An aesthetic choice? Or a lazy and coded shortcut?
For me, all in all, “Secretariat” adds up to something that looks pretty but tastes pretty bad, and apparently I expressed that view with a degree of force you found “insane.” Frankly, I wish you had avoided those kinds of epithets, and focused more on areas where we may have real differences of philosophical or political or aesthetic opinion and interpretation to discuss. I’m inclined to believe that you understood my argument well enough — better than you claim to, at least — but that it pissed you off so much you just didn’t want to deal with it. But that’s only a theory, and I assure you that my faith in Roger Ebert remains. Generally speaking.
Ebert: Thanks for responding. I understand your points, and have had similar thoughts of my own about some films. But you’re correct: I didn’t read it as satire, maybe because I’ve been softened up by so many similar Armond White reviews that he (apparently) writes seriously.
We can agree perhaps on one thing: Your review help us define what Rotten Tomatoes considers “positive.”

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6 Replies to “Ebert on O’Hehir’s ‘Conspiracy Theory’ About the Christian Director of ‘Secretariat’”

  1. People that go looking for monsters should not be surprised to find – monsters. The reviewer in question seemed to got the movie with a whole list of pre-conceived ideas for which he found direct or indirect support. That is not hard to do with any work of art – a subjective exercise when practiced well. So ignore this review and for a while this reviewer until he regains his insight and intellect and sets aside his prejudices and proclivities. I have to do this all the time with local movie reviewers though with one I have what seems to be a foolproof system – what she hates I love, and inverse as well.

  2. Right as always, jestrfyl. Every work of art, even an explicit narrative work like a movie, can be metaphorized into a representation of something else. I was surprised to see one of my favorite critics, Dana Stevens of Slate, write approvingly of O’Hehir’s version since I think that in this case he went too far in trying in an almost Procrustian fashion to adapt the facts (even the historically accurate name of the rival horse) to make his case.

  3. Although, I havent seen the film, O’Hehir’s accusations seem a bit…well extreme. I admire Ebert for his article especially since he still remained humble about it and didn’t directly bash O’Hehir.

  4. Kudos to Ebert for calling out another critic who is using his forum irresponsibly. Ebert is truly a critic of stature.

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