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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:

The Online Film Critics Society has published our list of the 100 best FIRST films. Number one is, of course, “Citizen Kane,” which usually tops the list of best films in any category. The list includes some neglected gems by directors who went on to make more widely lauded films as well as “L’Atlante by Jean Vigo, who made only one full-length feature before he died at 29, and “Night of the the Hunter,” the only film directed by distinguished actor Charles Laughton. The Pixar stars are there, with John Lasseter of “Toy Story” and Pete Docter of “Monsters, Inc.” And there are critic’s favorites like Terrence Malick (“Badlands”) and audience favorites like Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker (“Airplane!”). Steven Spielberg is remembered for his low-budget TV film “Duel,” still a spine-tingler, about an ordinary man inexplicably hounded by a mysterious truck driver. The list includes classics from the earliest days of cinema (Charlie Chaplin for “The Kid”) and up-to-the-minute stars like Rian Johnson (“Brick”) and Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”). It has documentarians (Errol Morris of “Gates of Heaven”) and mockumentarians (Rob Reiner for “This is Spinal Tap”). Like all “best” lists, it will provoke arguments, but like just about all best movie lists, everything on it is worth a look.

Religion and faith have been off limits on most scripted television shows, even those with characters who were members of the clergy. Christmas episodes are generally about Santa Claus and family, not about worship. So it was a very welcome surprise to see episodes of “Glee” and “Modern Family” that engaged in an entertaining but very real way with issues of belief. In “Glee,” the burn on a grilled cheese sandwich looked to Finn like Jesus. And when Kurt’s father was in a coma, other characters had a chance to explain what they believed as they tried to support him and he explained why he does not believe in God. On “Modern Family,” Jay and his new wife Gloria argue because she wants him to come with her to church and he wants to play golf. In the middle is her son, who gets very rattled by uncertainty over who and what to believe. Both episodes are available on Hulu.
I hope families use these programs to begin a discussion of what they believe, why they believe it, and how that compares to family and friends. Maybe then the next survey on our religious knowledge will produce some higher scores.

In honor of Special Education Week, watch this touching film with your family:

Milly (Lucy Deakins), her mother, Charlene (Bonnie Bedelia), and her brother, Louis (Fred Savage), move into a new home, still feeling bereft over the loss of the father of the family. Milly sees a mysterious boy (Jay Underwood) on the roof next door. She finds out that his name is Eric, and that he is autistic. He has never spoken, and ever since his parents were killed in a plane crash when he was five, he has apparently thought he was a plane. He lives with his alcoholic uncle, who confides to Milly that Eric really can fly. Adjustment to the new environment is difficult. Charlene is overwhelmed by the computers at her new job. Louis is terrorized by neighborhood bullies who won’t let him ride around the block. Even the dog Max is vanquished by the neighborhood Doberman.

At school, Milly befriends Eric, and when an understanding teacher (Colleen Dewhurst) sees that he responds to Milly, she asks her to work with him as a project for school, telling her that he doesn’t need a doctor as much as he needs a friend. Milly spends a lot of time with Eric, reading him stories and trying to teach him to understand and not just imitate. He does not speak, but when a ball is thrown at Milly’s head, he protects her by catching it.

Milly falls off a bridge on a class trip, and insists that Eric saved her by flying. A psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) tells her that her mind played tricks, and gently gets her to admit that her father killed himself when he found he had cancer.

Eric is sent to an institution. He somehow escapes, and he and Milly run away from the guards sent to retrieve him. They are chased up to the roof of the high school, where we discover that he really can fly. Eric and Milly float off together, to the astonishment of the entire community. Eric speaks at last, telling Milly he loves her, and flying away forever. She realizes why he had to leave when the scientists and journalists arrive the next day. Eric’s influence continues. Charlene masters the computer. Louis triumphs over the bullies. Max even scares away the Doberman. “He made us believe in ourselves again…We’re all special. We’re all a little like Eric. Maybe we can’t soar off into the clouds. But somewhere, deep inside, we can all fly.”

Discussion: This is a charming fantasy with a lot of heart and outstanding performances by three terrific kids who keep up with some of the finest adult actors in movies. Eric and Milly heal each other by responding to each other. For him, she provides the first reason he has ever had to try to make contact with another person. For her, he provides a reason to feel, and to give to another person, especially important after the loss of her father.

Questions for Kids:

Why was Eric so important to Milly? Why was she so important to him?

What did Eric teach Milly’s family?

Where do you think he will go next?

Why did Louis get so upset about his action figures being out in the rain?

Connections: Writer-director Nick Castle also directed “The Last Starfighter.” Bonnie Bedelia, who starred in “Heart Like a Wheel,” is the aunt of former child star Macaulay Culkin. Many of the other performers are better known for television appearances. This was the first movie appearance for Fred Savage, who went on to star in television’s “The Wonder Years,” and appeared in “The Princess Bride.” Fred Gwynne will be familiar to old-time television fans as Herman Munster and as Officer Muldoon of “Car 54 Where Are You.” Mindy Cohn starred for many years in “The Facts of Life.” And if you pay close attention, you will catch a glimpse of future “90210” superstar Jason Priestley as Gary.

Activities: This is a fantasy, and is in no way intended to be an accurate portrayal of autism. But kids who want to know more about this mysterious disease may want to read books like An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks (of “Awakenings”). “David and Lisa” has a more dramatic portrayal of two disturbed teenagers reaching out to help each other. Teenagers will appreciate Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar -winning portrayal of an autistic savant in “Rain Man.”