Reviewing the review

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.

13 thoughts on “Reviewing the review

  1. Why does anyone care what the New York Times has to say? It’s not the Gospel according to Luke. Ignore the review. I will probably buy the DVD as the movie is not playing anywhere near me and family obligations this weekend preclude a trip into NYC.Off topic: Four down, 12 to go. I understand the N.J. Devils’ annual golf outing begins Sunday at the Upper Montclair Country Club. I expect most of their tee shots will miss the fairway and bounce off trees, just as most of their on-ice shots couldn’t hit the net.Let’s Go Rangers!!!

  2. Is she the regular film critic for the New York Times?There’s a reason why I won’t buy the New York Times-racing related and i’ll add her as another oneAnyway she didn’t spot the only (slight)mistake in the movie….”Sold out” are great words to see.

  3. Never trust a newspaper that feels a morning line is unfit to print.Another fine piece, Teresa. I used to drink Jack in my yoot. Now I embarrass my friends when I order a Bailey’s and Khalua. I’m a girly girly girl times three!

  4. The New York Slimes is not a creditable newspaper. One must only look at its rapid loss of readership and financial decline. I find it’s only use is lining bird cages and training young puppies.

  5. Had to laugh when she wrote “one so-called expert noted that all sports entail risk, while ignoring that it’s only animals that also risk being put down.” I’m sure the families of Ron Turcotte, Mike Venezia and Alvaro Pineda would have a different opinion.

  6. We saw the movie yesterday – it was terrific! One of the Hennegan brothers was there to introduce the film and answer questions, which added to the experience. I read the NYTimes every day for the news, but I’ve given up on their coverage of racing. The movie review sounded uncannily like all the NYT op-ed pieces and sports columns that appear after Triple Crown races.[I’d look them up online just to make a point but the NYTimes makes you pay for old articles] The paper clearly has an agenda where horse racing is concerned and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms. Dargis had some help from the same people at the paper who write those misearble columns. Do you really think she would have known that Barbaro raced on a diuretic or that there even existed a horse named Ruffian if she hadn’t had some help? I highly doubt she gave a single thought to horse racing before this review. Which would have been fine if she just stuck with reviewing the movie.

  7. Obviously this person didn’t bother to reall “see” the movie. I haven’t read her review but did she really call Barbaro the “most famous soon to be dead horse since Ruffian?” Geez, let’s just callously ignore the accomplishments these two champions achieved on the racetrack.Having only seen FSIM on a teeny tiny monitor last year at Delaware Park, I’m envious of those who’ve enjoyed it on the big screen!

  8. I guess my only addition to this would be to say I’m sorry to see the Times bashing going along with the deserved takedown of the reviewer. The Times certainly has its problems, but it remains one of the great newspapers in the world and we need to support the dying few serious ones because they are critical keys to a functioning society. There is much to like and dislke at every newspaper, but, please, keep in mind the important roles they play as watchdogs of government and business. That we gets arts, fashion, society news and sports on top of that all in a daily miracle that costs a buck at the most should not be taken for granted. These days, everyone believes they have everything they need at their fingertips, and the importance of factual news has become greatly underestimated. It’s one thing to be critical of the Bush Administration, for example, quite another to report on what it actually is up to. If the New York Times, with its myriad problems, decides to further retrench and cut newsgathering like so many other newspapers around the country, we would only become more insular and ignorant. Blogs are self-contained worlds, mostly narrowly focused. When you read a newspaper online, you only read the stories you choose to click on. When you open a newspaper, you can’t help but turn a page and stumble upon a story about something in your community or the world at large that you might never otherwise have known about. That broadens perspective, and reading over time begins to reveal obscure connections and threads that tie disparate parts of the world. When the planes hit the towers, half of us didn’t have a clue why the hell it happened because we had been failed by our news apparatus. Britney, Paris. We need to build up the serious news operations, not knock them down. In a civilized world, reading a newspaper, even in these Internet times, should be an indespensible part of a thinking person’s day. Now, oh holier than thou will get off the Sunday morning soapbox and say its about freaking time The Times restores its entries and charts. Taking readers for granted is the flip side of the coin.– J.S.

  9. Thanks to everyone for the comments, and I’m so glad that you liked the movie! As disappointed as I was with Dargis’s review, I’m a daily New York Times subcriber (where else would I get access to all of those amazing historical articles?), and I like much of the paper a lot, including, usually, its arts coverage. While I think that this review is inexcusable, I’m not quite ready to paint the whole paper with that brush…

  10. I saw the film yesterday, and while enjoying it I thought there should have been mention of the other owners of the six horses (save for the Jacksons and Shadwell Farm). I also thought the titles were amerturish.Just a personal beef, why do people at Q&As think the audience is interested in YOUR biography? Just ask your question and STFU! Do you think we could start a national campaign to wipe out this terrible disease of running-off-at-the-moutitis?

  11. Thanks for coming to our defense Teresa. And thanks to the others on your blog who did the same. My apologies to the person who said I spoke too long at the Q and A. I guess I should watch that. At previous screenings, people have asked our background and I just decided to throw it in as I felt I would be asked again. Will keep it brief next time.Or you can just walk out . . .

  12. John: Thanks for making a movie that it’s so easy to say nice things about. =)And I think the commenter was talking about the person asking the question, not you guys? I wasn’t there, but I got the sense that whoever asked the question spent a little too much time on him/herself.Anonymous: perhaps you can clarify?

  13. Now I know that Ms. Dargis’ seat does not always face the screen. That said, put on the blinders and race to see “First Saturday in May.” Norm Zinker and Dan Hamner

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