Secretariat

What you see on the screen in Randall Wallace’s mildly engaging biopic “Secretariat” is what you get, a rather flat, overly explicit, extremely old-fashioned inspirational tale, which is slightly elevated by the compelling lead performance from Diane Lane and yet another eccentric supporting turn from John Malkovich.

 

Based on a true story, “Secretariat” chronicles a spectacular journey of a woman and her horse in a conventional, even pedestrian way. In the press notes, director Wallace describes his movie (which is named after the horse) as “a story about heart, the heart of Secretariat and the heart of the woman who owned him. Both were greater than anyone imagined.” And that’s exactly what he does, creating a sentimental, utterly predictable middlebrow fare.
 
As a boy, I was a fan of Hollywood movies about animals, all kinds of animals (dogs, horses, monkeys), and boys may be the primary target audience for Disney, when it release the movie October 8, even if the picture is sold as a Diane Lane star vehicle.
 
The massive, chestnut-colored hors is known to his family as Big Red, but everyone else calls him Secretariat; choosing the proper name for the horse offers a poignant discussion among the participants.
 
The gorgeous-looking Secretariat should have received co-star billing for he receives as many close up as Diane Lane, not to mention the fact that most of the characters engage in lively conversations with him.
 
The way the film is written by Mike Rich, whose scenario is loosely based on William Nack’s book, ““Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” the heroine, Penny Chenery has no dark elements, no gray shadings—or any shadings at all.  Early on, as a Denver housewife, married to an ultra-conservative hubby and mother of four, Penny is still a Daddy’s Girl. 
 
But later on, she evolves and becomes as gallant and charismatic as her steed, and just as committed as he is.   While her undying faith in the horse initially alienates her husband and all those around her, ultimately, Penny’s absolute devotion to the cause and personal sacrifices she’s forced to make as a wife and mother (like missing her daughter’s debut perfromance at school) change the course of her life entirely.
 
When the saga begins, Penny agrees to take over the Virginia-based Meadow Stables of her ailing father (Scott Glenn), despite her lack of horse-racing experience—and more importantly, despite her gender. She is dismissed as a dumb woman and unsophisticated housewife, who has the nerve to even penetrate into what’s male-driven and dominated enterprise.
 
From the first frame, it’s clear that we are going to see another “Against All Odds Triumph Tale,” and the only remaining questions are how Penny succeeded, or what steps and risks she took her long journey to achieve this success.
 
The process starts with Penny recruiting the help of the veteran, initially reluctant trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who entertains the idea of retiring and playing golf; though clearly he’s inept at it. Once on her side, Penny manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years—and breaking records as the greatest racehorse of all time.
 
Eventually, all the resistant characters come around, including Penny’s brother (Dylan Walsh), who is in favor of selling the business, and her very traditional and highly skeptical husband, who would rather see her in the kitchen, loyally and uncritically fulfilling her mother-wife duties.
 
The film also features James Cromwell (still best-known as the farmer in “Babe”) as Ogden Phipps, a wealthy financier and an integral figure in the racing community, who initially fights Penny, offering to buy the horse when she’s desperate for cash flow, only to change his mind later and invest in her operation, while it is still fledgling.
 
Other secondary figures include Fred Dalton Thompson, as Bull Hancock, owner of Claiborne Farms; Kevin Connolly and Eric Lange, as the reporters who initially recognize Secretariat’s potential; and AJ Michalka as Penny’s hippie daughter Kate.
 
The tale’s only other significant female character is Margo Martindale as Chenery’s loyal and supportive assistant. Special kudos go to Nelsan Ellis as Secretariat’s groom, and to real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth as Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte. Thorwarth’s scenes of riding the horse and pushing him to the limits, often shot in slow-mo and with natural sounds, offer many thrilling moments, some of which never depicted before in Hollywood movies.
 
Unfortunately, Wallace, who had previously penned Mel Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winning, global hit “Braveheart,” believes in spelling out every dramatic conflict and every resolution. We get all the requisite close-ups and mega close-ups. There is nothing for us to do but nod our heads with approval.
 
Occasionally, “Secretariat“ propagates a fake, soirt of mythical approach to the story, suggesting that when the horse was running the last of his races, he was no longer running against other horses, he was running for the joy in becoming who he was meant to be.
 
Propagating the right social values, such as commitment to a cause; balancing familial and personal needs, paying honor to your loves ones, and so on “Secretariat” is a movie suitable for all members of the family.  Too bad families do not go to the movies together anymore.
 
Cast
 
Penny Chenery – Diane Lane
Lucien Laurin – John Malkovich
Jack Tweedy – Dylan Walsh
Hollis Chenery – Dylan Baker
Miss Ham – Margo Martindale
Eddie Sweat – Nelsan Ellis
Ronnie Turcotte – Otto Thorwarth

 

Credits
 
A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Walt Disney Studios presentation of a Mayhem Pictures production.
Produced by Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi.
Executive producers, Bill Johnson, Mike Rich.
Co-producer, Kim Winther.
Directed by Randall Wallace.
Screenplay, Mike Rich, suggested by “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion” by William Nack.
Camera, Dean Semler.
Editor, John Wright.
Music, Nick Glennie-Smith.
Production designer, Tom Sanders; art director, Naaman Marshall; set decorator, Patrick Cassidy.
Costume designers, Michael T. Boyd, Julie Weiss.
Sound, David Daniel, Kevin O’Connell, Beau Borders; sound designer, Benjamin L. Cook; supervising sound editors, Kami Asgar, Sean McCormack.
Special effects coordinator, John Milinac; special effects supervisor, Paul Lombardi.
Visual effects supervisor, Ray McIntyre.
Stunt coordinators, Freddie Hice, Rusty Hendrickson.
Associate producers, Andrew Wallace, Jayne Armstrong.
Assistant director, Kim Winther; second unit director, Rusty Hendrickson; second unit camera, Brad Shield.
Casting, Sheila Jaffe.
 
MPAA Rating: PG.

Running time: 123 Minutes.

Trailer: emanuellevy.com/videos/view.cfm?id=264.