Secretariat (2010) / Drama-Family
MPAA Rated: PG for brief mild language
Running time: 123 min.
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelson Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn, Nestor Serrano, Kevin Connolly, Dylan Baker
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenplay: Mike Rich
Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe, Jumper) stars as Penny Chenery, a housewife and mother who found herself in an unusual position of having to take the lead of her ailing father's (Glenn, W.) debt-ridden horse farm. Refusing to let her father's dream disappear on her watch, Penny concocts a myriad of schemes to keep the place alive, but with no other resources than the horses, her only real option is to have a racehorse successful enough for investors to want to sire future thoroughbreds.
As the luck of a fateful coin toss would have it, she ends up the owner of one of the best to ever live, "Big Red" as they called him personally, but known to the world as "Secretariat", the film follows Penny's strive to find her horse the best trainer (Malkovich, Burn After Reading), jockey (Thorwarth), and business partners she can muster, not knowing a thing about how to do it, and compete on a level where he could become a champion.
The titular 1973 Triple Crown winner follows Seabiscuit in the inspirational horse racing movie genre to much less successful, but all-in-all respectable results. This glossy, family-friendly, Disney-produced entry is mostly free of offensive material, yet is so homogenized for universal entertainment that it is also devoid of many distinguishing qualities that would set it apart from typical sports movie crowd-pleasing formula. Beautifully shot horse racing scenes that get you right down into the action are the real thrill in this otherwise standard drama that takes an incredible amount of artistic liberties for a story so well known to fans of sports racing.
Not that it isn't a story worth telling, but it's just that this story is told in the most manipulative way possible, ham-handedly obvious in its approach to period (a superfluous recurring subplot involving student hippie protests only distracts), setting up antagonists when they aren't necessary (Pancho Martin's (Serrano, Definitely Maybe) trash-talking, pseudo-boxing promoter portrayal is widely considered a complete fabrication), quasi-religious parallels (Bible passages, Gospel hymns, and the faith/miracle subtext), and phonied-up personal and professional strife for the sake of creating enough narrative conflict to make Secretariat some sort of long shot underdog.
But, like Secretariat himself, the film based on him trails from the winning pace by a wide margin, to the point where you're ready to give up on it, only to pick up the speed down the final stretch and emerge to win you over. In short, it's a fictional narrative built on factual events, and as long as you know this (the less you know, the better you might like it), it's a relatively benign, occasionally interesting, nicely pictured, toothache-ingly sugarcoated look at one of the greatest sports racing horses in history.
©2011 Vince Leo