Immediately after viewing Disney's awards-hopeful Secretariat, I happened to meet a friend whose first question about the film was to know if, as promised, it is The Blind Side - an inspirational sports movie of virtually no aesthetic importance starring a woman who, for reasons best left unexplored, has been anointed as "owed" an Oscar - with a horse instead of a homeless black kid (that this is the received wisdom about Secretariat and The Blind Side says more about the institutionalised racism of Hollywood, more eloquently, than I could ever hope to do). I demurred, and told him what I shall now tell you: it is rather more like Seabiscuit, with all of the social context removed. "Because Seabiscuit teemed with social context", he replied with admirably straitlaced irony.

But I must now demur again, and come to the reason I have shared this little anecdote with you all. For Secretariat is so wildly, excessively pointless, so entirely devoid of anything that survives in the mind longer than a few minutes, that it accidentally manages to reveal just how much social context Seabiscuit, one of the most universally-disparaged Best Picture nominees of the 2000s, does in fact possess. Indeed, it may be this unexpected, seven-years-later rehabilitation of that easily-forgotten prestige film is the most noteworthy aspect of the otherwise crushingly unexceptional Secretariat; and I look forward to having this criticism disproved in 2017 by the release of Man o' War, which at this rate I expect to consist of two hours of dappled golden hour photography wrapped around non-stop scenes of a horse farting into an obese man's face.

Opening in 1969, the story of the film (adapted by Mike Rich, whose last inspirational sports movie for Disney was The Rookie, though he later wrote Radio for Sony) is largely the story of Penny Tweedy née Chenery (Diane Lane), living in Denver with an incredibly bland husband (Dylan Walsh) and four bland children. Upon the death of her mother, and owing to the senility of her father (Scott Glenn), Penny takes over the family's failing horse ranch, and wins a colt that she and nobody else wants by losing a coin toss. This colt grows up to be the best racehorse in the history America, and because Penny had the foresight to bet her entire inheritance on exactly this happening, everybody we like is happy and everybody we dislike is consigned with barely a glance to the dustbin of history. The people we like, for the record, include Penny's father's indomitable secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), French-Canadian horse trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), jockey Ron Turcotte (non-actor Otto Thorwarth), and affable groom Stepin Fetchit III (Nelsan Ellis).

It's awfully considerate of Secretariat to be a genetic abnormality and therefore become a profound success, so that all of these characters can achieve success and fame without having to do a goddamn thing: the most proactive moment for any of the characters comes when Miss Ham finally bestows upon the horse his name, after her first eleventy-hundred choices are rejected by the Horse Naming Commission. I am sure that this was not the case in history: that the persons involved worked their asses off to make Secretariat a legend. But none of this is seen in the movie - Penny largely stands around assuring people that her baby is going to knock their socks off, while Lucien's "training" consists primarily of staring at the animal and saying different variations of "Horses, man, horses. The fuck, y'know? For serious." Neither Rich nor director Randall Wallace, who has been best known to me for writing Braveheart 15 years ago, give any apparent shit about depicting actual, legitimate drama, and at times the film earnestly shies away from it - for the first hour, the story keeps promising to explore the toll that Penny's obsession with horse-farming takes on her family, half a country away, but it never comes close: a combination of artistic indifference, and a scattershot narrative structure that blazes through the first three years of its story without any attention paid to chronological markers. Secretariat is in utero, born, and grown to about nine months in a collection of scenes that are edited to make it look for all the world like they take place in the span of maybe two weeks; the youngest Tweedy children remain the same 10- and 13-years-old during what we are assured is the period 1969-1973.

So anyway, the film is a tribute to people who triumph against the odds (Penny faces a wall of genteel sexism, Lucien faces his own ghosts, and we aren't meant to pay attention to anybody else) by doing very little besides being patient; so it's hard to argue with a straight face that the "point" of Secretariat is to cheer for overcoming adversity, certainly not in the same way as Seabiscuit, where a whole bunch of individual character arcs were used as metaphors for the nation overcoming the Great Depression. And it's certainly not like the years '69-'73 weren't full of unrest and upheaval that a canny filmmaker couldn't turn into a rich backdrop, in the same fashion; but except for an airless subplot about Penny's daughter Kate (Amanda Michalka) and her anti-war Christmas pageant, there's nothing of that in Secretariat either. And even this thin stab at cultural anthropology is left for dead after Penny (who clearly does not love her daughter's politics) rather absently informs Kate that as long as she believes strongly in something then OH WAIT I have to go look at the horse again. I dearly, dearly wish I'd seen the same cut of the film as Andrew O'Hehir, who read in it an alarming Christian Fascist parable. This at any rate sounds more interesting than the big bowl of unflavored oatmeal that they were showing in my theater (and to be fair, it is a bit curious how the film explicitly links Secretariat and Jesus Christ, but I don't think it speaks to anything approaching a coherent worldview).

The acting is resolutely decent: I continued to be baffled that Diane Lane impresses anybody, but her stoic optimism, devoid of an inner life or anything that enjoys diplomatic relations with an inner life, is a fine match for the film's own shallow conceits and middle-of-the-road craftsmanship. Malkovich is at least marginally better; he plays up the hammiest parts of his role whenever he can (he's introduced in a comic scene on a driving range that is much the most enjoyable part of the film), though his wardrobe - lots of plaid hats! - does most of the acting for him. And I personally would have made the choice to play the role with a huge Québécois accent, in the "Hohn-hohn-hohn, eet ees ze famoose horse Zecretahreeat" vein, and a mustache the size of a hamster, but obviously I am simply cleverer than John Malkovich.

There is one thing about the film that's actually kind of stunning: the race cinematography. Not the rest of the movie: Dean Semler is a perfectly gifted man, who is here asked to make everything look glowy and warm and fuzzy, and that's what he does. But, perhaps in recompense, he made some outrageously unconventional choices in how the four horse races were shot (I categorically refuse to allow that Wallace might have had anything to do with this choice). Not so much the third one, which is largely just done to look like vintage TV footage (and might well be vintage TV footage). The rest, though, are shot on conspicuously low-resolution digital video, from perspectives near the ground and atop horses' heads and in all sorts of places where you don't entirely know how they got a camera to do that. The result is some of the most arresting, kinetic horse footage that I've personally ever seen, putting the lie to the polished impotence of the rest of the movie. There's also a particularly gorgeous moment which (I pray, intentionally) recalls in specific detail Eadweard Muybridge's groundbreaking 1878 experiments in equine photography.

That is as far as my praise for the film will go. Other than that, it is perfectly absolutely, the most anonymously mediocre thing you could ever hope to see. It is an absolute void. Honestly, I don't even know why I bothered to review it, except that I saw it; and I saw it only because I am an idiot awards junkie who wanted to make sure that I didn't miss any of the potential Best Actress Oscar nominees. I urge you not to be me.