Alerted to the New York Times review of The First Saturday in May by J.S’s comment on Friday, I was as dismayed by Manohla Dargis’s review as J.S. In my writing classes, students often workshop their papers, sharing them with classmates to get feedback and comments for improvement, and I always caution: “Don’t suggest that the writer write the paper you want to read; help the writer write the paper she’s trying to write.”
I would offer Ms. Dargis the same advice: review the movie that the Hennegans made, not the one you wish they had made. And perhaps, pay closer attention to the film you saw; when she wrote, “Do the trainers determine a horse’s feed or its racing schedule?”, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d overlooked the scenes in which various trainers (Michael Matz most memorably) talked about the schedules they’d drawn up for their horses. Explicit at times, implicit at other, it’s clear that the trainers are looking ahead and choosing the starts for their Derby contenders.
Ms. Dargis seems to confuse the arts section with the op-ed page in the third paragraph of her review, when she notes,
Barbaro was apparently on a legal diuretic when he was raced at the Preakness.
There is no evidence that drugs played a role in his injury. Yet the debate over
racing thoroughbreds on any drugs is precisely the kind of issue that you would
expect to be addressed — much less mentioned — in a documentary that features
what would soon be the most famous dead horse in America since Ruffian, the
spectacular filly who was fatally injured in 1975.
The inclusion of the first sentence is at odds with the inclusion of the second: if there is no evidence that drugs played a role in Barbaro’s injury, why is she noting it? What on earth does it have to do with the movie that the Hennegans made? If it were a film about Barbaro, his victories, injury, and death, well, then, yes, of course you’d have to take this on. But it’s not: Barbaro is one-sixth of this movie, and one of its accomplishments is that it doesn’t allow the Barbaro story to take over. While giving it appropriate weight and noting the sad epilogue to Barbaro’s Derby victory, the Hennegans successfully change their tune (literally—the soundtrack shifts effectively and quickly) to convey what happened to the other horses and trainers following the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
Ms. Dargis also seems to confuse what the film is trying to accomplish when she says, “But given that they don’t address even the basics of horse training in a movie about horse trainers, you have to wonder what they thought they were making.” Well, I don’t think they ever thought that they were making a movie about training methods, a film certainly within the scope of the Hennegans’ knowledge and talents; rather, they were making a film about the various paths that horses take to get to the Derby. As the film notes early on, prep races take place all over the country, and horses need to earn a certain amount of money in these races to get to the Derby. This is, I imagine, news to the great majority of people in this country, so while they are not learning about how trainers build their horses’ stamina and speed, or how trainers take advantage of a horse’s natural inclinations (the closing Jazil vs. the front-running Lawyer Ron), they are learning about how those twenty horses end up in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May (sorry, couldn’t resist).
While I disagree with Ms. Dargis’s comments in the conclusion of her review, I appreciate them as film criticism (though the description of a character as “fat” seems little more than mean-spiritedness), and I wish that she had spent more time talking about the very elements that she discusses at the end, the elements that are at the heart of film and that deserve serious contemplation from a major film reviewer. I don’t quite know what she means when says that the film “smacks of exploitation”—I’m not sure who or what is being exploited—but I appreciated her attention to the technical and content choices that the film-makers made.
Are there movies out there to be made about the use of drugs in horse racing? About the details of training methods? About equine injury? Of course, and Ms. Dargis clearly would like to see a film that investigates these troubling elements of the sport we love—and in fact, so would I. But as Brad and John Hennegan have repeatedly said: their film is about people, and their goal is to make racing cool again. Maybe someday they’ll make a different movie about racing, and maybe it will suit Ms. Dargis’s preferences, and maybe then she’ll write a favorable review. But until then, we are stuck with this terrific, vibrant, engrossing, exciting movie. Poor us.
Find a theater near you and buy tickets online; good box office this weekend means an extended release, and the producers are donating 25% of the proceeds of the movie to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, one of the world’s leaders in equine research.