When is an amazing physical specimen of raw talent, in fact, an underdog? When Disney comes a-calling, of course.
Secretariat, the film based loosely on the life and (amazing) times of the most famous racehorse in history, may be more fictional that last week’s The Social Network, but fortunately, we’re still left with a thrilling tale will have families across the country standing up to cheer.
It’s no secret that Secretariat won the 1973 Triple Crown (The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont Stakes– and still holds the fastest time in two of them). For those of us who are in the know, Secretariat is still very compelling very entertaining. For the younger crowd (to whom the movie is essentially aimed), even more so.
Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun) plays Penny Chenery, a well-coiffed spitfire of a Denver housewife who inherits her family’s Virginia horse farm when her mother dies. (Her father, played by Scott Glenn in an essentially silent role, is living with Alzheimer’s.) When Penny enters the picture, two of the prize mares are pregnant, and due to a prior agreement, one foal is owed to super-wealthy businessman Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell, Babe). To decide which foal, Penny and Ogden toss a coin. Ogden wins and chooses the other foal, leaving Penny with the horse that would soon be named Secretariat.
As Penny racks up the Colorado-to-Virginia frequent flier miles, she balances family life (husband, four kids) and life on the farm (hiring a new trainer, keeping the estate in the black). Being a Disney movie, though, Secretariat has only enough conflict to keep things interesting. There are no fights, no harsh words, and nothing, really, that warrants even its PG rating. Even John Malkovich’s performance as the colorful new trainer Penny brings in for Secretariat, is remarkably mellow. His hats, actually, are the most interesting thing about him.
Secretariat is a family film in every sense of the word. Penny’s children, including her hippie teenage daughter (Amanda Michalka), are front and center (maybe even too front and center), and her husband (Dylan Walsh) occasionally wrinkles his brow at Penny’s constant comings and goings, but he ultimately stands behind her.
Director Randall Wallace (who wrote the screenplay for Braveheart) went to seminary at Duke, so religion also plays a considerable role. Secretariat, in fact, opens and closes with Penny quoting from the Book of Job. Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich (pulling from William Nack’s biography of Secretariat) craft a gentle, pleasant film that’s, at the same time, inspiring and crowd-pleasing.
The real star of the show, obviously, is Secretariat himself, and cinematographer Dean Semler (2012, Dances With Wolves) shows him off brilliantly, especially in the Triple Crown races. Putting cameras everywhere (including several on the horse), he captures the raw power and excitement of the moments—keeping you on the edge of your seat, even through you know Secretariat will cross the line first. No mean feat.
Overall, Secretariat is a perfectly fine movie punctuated with fantastic racing. Bring the kids, dip your hand in that huge vat of popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the ride.