What It Is
Known as Red around the barn. Secretariat was a spectacular racehorse, one of those rare creatures who lived up to his hype. From the moment he was born, according to the Disney version of his life, the colt was ready to go. He consistently awed and surprised the people around him and set records that have yet to be beaten, even 37 years later.
In Secretariat, the horse gets the full-on fairy tale treatment. He helps his owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), to find a purpose after her father’s death, and his trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to reclaim a career on the skids. He wins race after race, inspiring his veteran jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) and loyal groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and convincing Penny’s conservative husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) to appreciate his wife’s ambition and dedication. Even Penny’s teenaged daughter Kate (AJ Michalka) learns something for the story of her mother and Red, as she sorts out what it means to be rebellious and independent (and protest the war in Vietnam, an activity her father disparages). She comes to see in her mother’s new career a model of liberation.
Penny is the film’s emotional center, as she looks after her ailing horse-farm owner father (Scott Glenn) and then, after his death, navigates the complicated world of horse racing, where egos and bank accounts are all large. Her faith in Secretariat is instantaneous (literally, she hopes he’ll save the farm even before he’s born). She deals with an assortment of eccentric employees and friends (Lucien is especially lively, wearing vibrant outfits and hats, tending to speak his mind loudly), her family, who miss her when she’s away at the farm or at races, and all sorts of sports reporters and other owners — mostly men who think she can’t keep up.
As interesting as Penny’s story may be (a woman running a multi-million dollar business in the 1970s was not typical), the movie is organized around Secretariat’s key races. These showcase horses’ magnificent bodies, jockeys’ colorful silks, and loads of reaction shots of people in the stands. Throughout, Penny, Lucien, Eddie, and Ronnie’s steadfast commitment to their horse and their goal is admirable and their evolving relationships with each other are entertaining.
Why It’s Fun
In a word: the horse. This movie version of Secretariat is an ideal mix of athletic brilliance and vivid personality, especially in his scenes with Penny. As she marvels at his apparent intelligence, his grace and speed, the film provides close-ups of his eyes, his churning legs, and his snorting nostrils. It’s not that they communicate, exactly. It’s more like she sees herself when she looks at him.
While Secretariat takes a conventional “sports movie” shape — when underdogs triumph over adversity (see also: Glory Road, Remember the Titans, even The Mighty Ducks) — it also maintains a balance among a range of elements, including melodrama (Penny’s domestic concerns), comedy, (Lucien’s odd behaviors), and competition (the racing/track scenes). These are beautifully shot, sometimes in slow motion, and frequently exciting, even if you know who’s going to win the race.
It also keeps a close focus as well on how media build up heroes and exploit them, how stories told on TV aren’t always true and sometimes need to be challenged. Other times, TV is a great means to share experience, to create a sense of community: one of the most effective scenes shows Jack and the children watching the Preakness on TV while Penny is at the track. This scene uses actual footage of the real race, and cuts back and forth between the family’s faces as they realize Secretariat will win: their delight is infectious.
Who’s Going To Love It
Secretariat’s story will be familiar to viewers of a certain age, but more importantly, it will appeal to horse lovers of all ages. In history, he’s remembered as the last horse ever to win the Triple Crown (in 1973), believed by many to be the most difficult feat in all of sports: three races of increasing lengths over a two month period. In horse circles, he’s also known as a great character, rambunctious and grand. The film captures this aspect of the horse without making him do tricks or otherwise act like animals usually do in Disney movies. He is instead very horsey, sometimes playful, sometimes stubborn, and sometimes unfathomable to his people.
It’s hard to make a film exciting when everyone knows how it ends. In this case, even though the saga of Secretariat is well known, Randall Wallace’s movie conjures sympathy for the protagonists, provides worthy adversaries, and especially, helps you to believe, as Penny does, that Secretariat understands everything she says to him, even if you know that he doesn’t, quite.
What To Be Aware Of
The film does show Penny’s response to her father’s death, which is expected, but still very upsetting. These scenes are sad but brief, as she almost immediately begins to argue with her lawyer husband and her economist brother, Hollis (Dylan Baker). They want to sell the farm, but she wants to preserve her father’s legacy. They think she’s sentimental and too emotional (too girlish). After she does some research and — rather suddenly — knows how to run the business, she thinks their vision is limited, their attitudes too stuffy, their sense of adventure lacking.
The film adopts a sometimes subtle religious framework. It opens with Penny’s voice quoting Job 39:19-25 on horses (“Do you make the steed to quiver while his thunderous snorting spreads terror? / He jubilantly paws the plain and rushes in his might against the weapons...”). And in a scene when Penny seeks solace after her plan to finance the farm falls through, she finds it in dancing to “Oh Happy Day” while washing Secretariat down. The film’s promotional campaign is reportedly “targeting Christians”, using an advertising strategy similar to the very successful one devised for The Blind Side.
8 out of 10
Director: Randall Wallace
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
US Premiere: October 8, 2010
UK Premiere: December 10, 2010