Secretariat Is A Winner – But Not By 31 Lengths!


After giving us unmitigated pap like You Again, it’s nice to see a genuinely good live action movie from Disney. Secretariat is smart, has heart and manages to make historic events suspenseful – not the easiest trick to pull off.

Sure, when the film is away from the track it gets a little overwrought. Sure the score is a hair too insistent at times. Underneath that, however, is solid spine – the story of a housewife who parlays a lost coin toss into the last Triple Crown winner in racing history. And not just a Triple Crown winner, but a completely dominant one – winning the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of racing’s Triple Crown, by thirty-one lengths!

Penny Tweedy [Diane Lane], nee Chenery, takes over her father’s training operation after her mother’s death and her father’s stroke and death shortly thereafter, and quickly teaches herself enough to know what she wants from a coin toss that’s a tradition between her father, Chris Chenery [Scott Glenn], and Ogden Phipps [James Cromwell] to see who would get which foal of two sired by Phipps’ best stud and Chris’ two best mares.

Family friend Bull Hancock [Fred Dalton Thompson] stirs her to trainer Lucien Lauren [John Malkovich] – with the warning that he “dresses like Superfly,” and along with groom Eddie [Nelsan Ellis] and jockey Ron Turcotte [Clay Thistlewaite], take the big red thoroughbred that results and turns him a champion.

At the same time, Penny is balancing her life as a horse owner with her married life – husband Jack [Dylan Walsh], two boys, John [Jacob Rhodes] and Chris [Sean Michael Cunningham], and two daughters, Kate [Amanda Michalka] and Sarah [Carissa Capobianco] – and it’s her normal life that suffers [she has to listen to daughter Kate’s winter Christmas protest play over the phone when her plane is snowed in at the last moment].

Thinks are easier on the horse owner front – between her lawyer brother Hollis [Dylan Baker] and accountant husband, they figure the inheritance tax will be six million dollars – which can only be raised by selling the ranch. Which Penny will not hear of…

I don’t know how accurate the timeline is for Secretariat, but it seems that misfortunes pile on far too quickly – and the sequences built around those misfortunes are handled less than subtly, and less than adroitly. Most of the film’s problems come from these sequences – and some of the family problems dealing with a semi-absent mother – are over emphasized a bit. Those sequences are also where the score could be more nuanced.

The training and racing scenes, though, are incredibly well done. As Secretariat lounges in the starting gate before reeling off victory after victory, the angles [including some marvelous shots between the horses’ legs – talk about visceral] and editing endow races that have been a matter of record for decades, suspenseful. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say they are genuinely thrilling.

Away from the track, the best scenes take place whenever Lauren and Chenery are onscreen. Malkovich and Lane do marvelous work in a film that shouldn’t actually be quite this good. Margot Martindale adds solidity and faith as Miss Hamm, who worked for Henry for years and is staying on because she believes in what Penny’s doing – and it’s she who names the horse [the best Penny and her team could come up with was Big Red].

Randall Wallace, directing from a script by Mike Rich, doesn’t just keep things moving, he finds angles and lighting to propel the film on both emotional and physical levels. The result is an attempt at an inspirational family film that actually succeeds, for the most part.

Final Grade: B+