While the highly touted Facebook film, The Social Network, is the technically superior movie, Disney’s tale of a great American horse and the owner that took him to historic Triple Crown success in 1973, Secretariat, is more enjoyable. The former is written by pretentious Aaron Sorkin (NBC’s The West Wing) and directed by the uneven David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The latter, which opens this Friday, is directed by writer Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask) and it is choppy, cliched and predictable. Both movies offer a clear perspective on what it means to make money; while Social Network holds capitalism in contempt, Secretariat exhibits a thorough grasp of capitalism in practice.
As the jaded Social Network opens with breathless banter between two cynics (including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg) who yap at one another like prissy show dogs at trial, one pivotal character delivers a derisive line about “being the best you can be” that comes to define the picture. To have Fincher and Sorkin show and tell it, Facebook and all social media are an immature extension of a whiz kid’s neurotic snit and creativity is nothing more than a construct devised by hacks. While it is true that Zuckerberg’s hacking at Harvard led to what is now arguably the biggest Web site on earth, with more hits than Google, this trite, obvious version of his success is impossible to accept as credible.
With everyone speaking in that droning mainstream media/dominant intellectual monotone, set to a sparse piano theme, Social Network is like My Dinner with Andre on steroids. Success in business is an accident, Sorkin argues, or something close to anarchy, which comes in random, reactionary spurts of nothing in particular. Sure, one has to be smart, know some facts and punch some code, but, really, there isn’t much more to creating a billion-dollar enterprise than being an unethical geek who scrapes and claws his way to the top like Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls, which this picture unwittingly evokes, with Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo as the clean-cut Barbara Parkins brunette. Only it’s less sympathetic. I hated the characters from the beginning, I wanted to escape Harvard ‘s dull, lifeless den of depravity (the college’s students are portrayed as a bunch of brainy but vacant sluts and brainy but vacant geeks and jocks), and I don’t believe a word of it. If you regard Facebook as an empty vessel of narcissism and meaningless discourse, The Social Network validates your viewpoint. If you think that, like early television programming, social media is an exciting industry rich with possibilities, you will be instantly disconnected.
By contrast, the heavily laden Secretariat is inspiring. Placing at its center a woman named Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), who brought the best racehorse in the world into existence, this variation on Places in the Heart (1983) has too much to say and not enough of it about what made the horse an incredible achievement by man. Ms. Lane is at her best as a hard woman who’s all business at a time when Daddy’s little girl grew up to be a housewife, not a horse owner. Secretariat, for all its Hollywood oversimplifications, understands ownership. Opening in 1969, with hippies crawling all over the country like bedbugs infesting the civilized world, Penny is like First Lady Pat Nixon, a simple Western wife and mother baking cakes for the kids. When her dad (Scott Glenn) dies, she returns to the horse farm where she grew up, and, suddenly jarred into the realization that she had once wanted more of life than motherhood, and feeling out of alignment while visiting her childhood home, Penny boldly stakes her claim. Showing leadership skills right out of former BB&T Chairman John Allison’s principles of leadership, she takes the reins, pardon the pun, asserting that work is good for grief, that owning horses is her business and that life means having “the will to win if you can and to live with it if you can’t”.
Upon Secretariat’s birth, she assembles the team, which includes a down and out trainer played by John Malkovich, and proceeds to instill honor, trust and idealism in those around her. The racing scenes are thrilling (and, having seen the victories live on television as a youth, I can attest that Secretariat brings back the glory), and Diane Lane is brighter and better than ever in the role of a brave capitalist who insists on making things right when she’s been wrong and being a rational example to her husband and children, and not just to her daughters, that offers an antidote to the scum that was building up in 1973. Secretariat’s breathtaking win was what we needed then, more so now, and Secretariat, with its arrogant owner trading in shares and vowing to her men that “we are going to live rejoicing every day” and cashing in during a glamorous ballroom dance, captures the glory of achieving one’s values. Wallace’s and Disney’s Secretariat, one of ousted chairman Dick Cook’s last projects, is a winner.