Directed By: Randall Wallace
Screenplay By: Mike Rich
Based on by the book by William Nack
Produced By: Mark Ciardi, Pete DeStefano, Gordon Gray
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, James Cromwell, Kevin Connolly, Scott Glenn
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 116 minutes
Release Date: October 8, 2010
Review Date: October 8, 2010
For all the nostalgic gloss of Dean Semler’s cinematography on the inspired-by-an-inspiring-true-story-meant-to-inspire-you Secretariat, it is a few of the horseracing sequences that stand out. Semler switches to digital camerawork, getting in down and dirty along the trampling hooves of the horses and high above the ground from the point-of-view of the bouncing, grasping jockey. It’s a strange aesthetic choice, considering how the rest of the movie looks, and perhaps the only one to properly portray the exertion and ferocity of an equine in full gallop.
The moments are prominent among the rest of the movie because they are authentic. In the middle of inspiring speeches to people, animals, and inanimate objects and the ham-handed assertions of how the odds are stacked against just about every major character in the story, here, in some small way at least, is something honest in a true story.
Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) is married to Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), a successful tax attorney, with four kids, including Kate (Amanda Michalka), an aspiring hippie whose anti-war politics are a burden to dad but whose passion for a cause is an inspiration (get used to that word and its variants when vocalizing the movie’s intentions) to mom. They live in Denver, the year is 1969, and Penny is using a mixing bowl just in time to drop it when she receives a devastating phone call.
Her mother has died, and her father’s (Scott Glenn) health is fading rapidly. The family farm in Virginia is being swindled by a deceitful trainer, is losing money on its own, and doesn’t have a single winning horse to help the family out of its rut. Her brother (Dylan Baker) wants to sell the whole deal, horses and all, but Penny sees an opportunity in an unborn foal.
With a bit of gumption and some luck, Penny wins the soon-to-be champion horse in a coin toss with Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), “the richest man in America,” Jack helpfully clarifies. She hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a trainer who keeps news clippings of his famous losses in his wallet and cannot bring himself to retire until he proves himself, and Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), a jockey who pushes his horses to prove that he can push his horses to do their best (most recently, he pushed one until its heart exploded).
Then there’s Secretariat himself. Too young, too lazy, and too heavy, Laurin thinks he has potential but needs the horse to prove it. Reporters and other owners are impressed with his first year of racing but think he’ll show a weakness for lengthier runs like his sire before him. The horse has a lot to prove, too, and shows his determination in a stare-down with his major opponent before the first big race on his way to a Triple Crown win.
In reality, of course, Secretariat was the odds-on favorite, meaning the horse’s wins at the time came with about as much surprise as his wins in the movie. This, though, is an underdog story about resolve and courage in the face of impossible odds, the will to win no matter what the risk might be, and all those other commendable traits that become oh-so tiresome after repeated platitudes of inspiration.
There’s a deathbed scene. There’s a harsh talking-to after a potentially damaging loss and humbling forgiveness when the problem is an unfortunate medical condition. Penny and Secretariat lock eyes, minds, and souls, because only she knows how far to really push the big guy and how much he loves to race and wants to win. Secretariat’s groomer Eddie (Nelsan Ellis) walks on to the dirt of an empty Churchill Downs on the morning of the Kentucky Derby to inspire the racetrack for what it’s about to witness.
Mike Rich’s script is calculated in the same way Lane’s performance is transparently considered for the utmost propriety, Laurin’s checkered hats and outbursts of French make him a wild card, and assistant Ms. Ham’s (Margo Martindale) comic intrusions lighten the mood. The real difficulties of Penny balancing her family and professional lives are condensed to a couple of scenes of passive-aggressive conflict from Jack and a few inferences that she’s not cut out to own a horse simply because of expected gender roles.
Secretariat is too premeditated on results without earning them. That’s why, instead of talking about how exciting the races are, it’s more about how unexpected a few flashes of visceral digital cinematography are.
Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.