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War of words erupts over 'Secretariat'

Is 'a work of creepy, half-hilarious' propaganda, a review says

The wholesome, family-friendly movie "Secretariat" has sparked a debate about Nazis, propaganda, white power and a host of other unsavory stuff Disney probably didn't bargain for.

Mostly the conversation has raged online between film critic Roger Ebert and Salon reviewer Andrew O'Hehir, but movie-loving bloggers everywhere are weighing in.

It started with O'Hehir's review of "Secretariat." Here are a few examples:

-- "The welcoming glow that imbues every corner of this nostalgic horse-racing yarn with rich, lambent color comes from within, as if the movie itself is ablaze with its own crazy sense of purpose. (Or as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.)"

-- "It's legitimate to wonder exactly what Christian-friendly and 'middle-American' inspirational values are being conveyed here, or whether they're just providing cover for some fairly ordinary right-wing ideology and xenophobia."

-- " 'Secretariat' is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl ... [about how] all right-thinking Americans are united in their adoration of a Nietzschean Überhorse."

That was a little over the top for Ebert, who wrote a lengthy takedown of O'Hehir and defense of "Secretariat," the movie, and the horse.

"His review resembles a fevered conspiracy theory," Ebert wrote. "I saw a straightforward, lovingly crafted film about a great horse."

In the Salon review, writes Ebert, "We learn the horse is a carrier not merely of Ron Turcotte's 130 pounds, but of Nazism, racism, Tea Party ideology and the dark side of Christianity."

After describing the Salon review, Ebert says, "I'm not making this up. How did a lifelong liberal like myself manage to leave peacefully at the end, instead of organizing the audience and leading a demonstration right then and there?"

O'Hehir responded to Ebert with a disclaimer that he wasn't "eager to get into a public dispute with you over a Disney movie that you found 'straightforward' and 'lovingly crafted' and I found weird, fake and inexplicably disturbing."

He acknowledged his original review was "unorthodox and admittedly inflammatory" while patting himself on the back for writing something that has garnered so much attention online.

"I don't claim the review makes its case with perfect clarity, and I didn't expect many people to agree completely," O'Hehir wrote in his response to Ebert's criticism. "Being forcefully told that you're full of crap goes with the job description, especially in an inherently subjective endeavor like movie criticism."

But O'Hehir only sort of backed down from his most provocative statement, comparing Randall Wallace's direction of "Secretariat" to something worthy of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.

It was "a deliberately outrageous claim," he informs Ebert. But then he adds this: "The most effective kind of propaganda depicts normal life, or rather an idealized vision of normal life."

And apparently the idealized normal life depicted in "Secretariat," according to O'Hehir, is a "fantasia of American whiteness and power."