(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwath, Fred Dalton Thompson, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Michael Harding, Nestor Serrano, Drew Roy, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly. Directed by Randall Wallace
There may be no other event as beautiful as a horse race. Something about a horse running down a track takes the breath away; while I’ve never been a huge fan of the sport, I understand the passion it inspires. It’s very easy to get caught up in.
Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is a Denver housewife, raising four kids and living the life of the upper middle class when she gets a terrible phone call; her mother has passed away. She goes back home to Virginia for the funeral. Her father Christopher Chenery (Glenn) is ill, lucid only for brief moments. He runs Meadow Farm, a horse ranch that has fallen onto hard times. Penny and her brother Hollis (Baker) realize that there is a lot of issues to be decided about the farm’s future. Penny decides to stay on and close up loose ends; Hollis means to sell the farm and get what he can for it, but Penny is a little less crazy about the idea.
Aided by Mrs. Ham (Martindale), the loyal secretary to her father and virtually a family member, Penny begins to take a closer look at the farm and finds that things are dire, but not irretrievably so. One thing they do have that is worth money is a potential foal that was sired by Bold Ruler, a champion sire. There are actually two foals, each with a different mare on the farm. The owner of Bold Ruler, Ogden Phipps (Cromwell), one of the richest men in America, made a handshake deal with her father that a coin would be flipped to determine which foal would go with him and which one would stay with Meadow Farm.
In the meantime, Penny lets go of the trainer for the farm and at the advice of family friend Bull Hancock (Thompson), she hires Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a well-respected trainer who had recently retired but was finding retirement doesn’t agree with him. Penny winds up losing the coin flip but gets the foal she wanted; Bold Ruler was known for siring very fast horses but the mare Somethingroyal had given birth to horses with stamina. The combination could create a potential superhorse, but Phipps goes with conventional wisdom and takes the progeny of Hasty Matelda, a horse that had delivered much more successful racehorses at the time.
When Lucien, Penny and groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis) witness the birth of the foal, they are stunned to see it rise up to its feet, something that takes most foals longer. Lucien is in awe; clearly they are in the presence of something very special.
Penny falls immediately in love with the horse whom she nicknames Big Red for its color; initially Lucien isn’t sure of the horse’s work ethic and is suspicious of his tendency to overeat but the horse that is named Secretariat (after ten other names had been rejected by the Racing Association) turns out to be a powerful champion.
Getting him to the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes will be a near-miracle; the farm is close to foreclosure and there is little money left. To make things worse, Penny isn’t taken seriously as an owner in a world that is dominated by men, mainly men from money (like Phipps).
Most people know the Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse in a quarter century to achieve that feat (Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but no horse has won it since). Some may well know the spectacular fashion he accomplished it in, but most people agree that Secretariat was the most dominant horse of his time, and perhaps ever. Perhaps only Seabiscuit alone was more popular than Big Red.
Like Titanic, the movie’s end is a foregone conclusion. What makes it interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at what was going on and what Penny Tweedy overcame. You can’t really call this an underdog movie, although Disney is marketing it as such; it would be like calling the story of the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls an underdog story. You can’t call the best athlete in his sport an underdog, and Secretariat fit that description to a “T”.
Director Wallace, who previously wrote Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, understood the dilemma of having a sports story without an underdog per se, so rather than focusing on the horse, he focuses on the owner and her battle to gain acceptance in the masculine hierarchy of the horse racing world.
Lane plays her as an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she’s strong as steel, her daddy’s daughter who is unwilling to give up or give in. On the other, she’s a typical housewife of the late 60s and early 70s, the happy homemaker who cleans house, cooks dinner, raises the kids and supports her hubby (Walsh). Lane integrates both elements of the personality effortlessly (I suspect that she relates to Penny Tweedy very strongly) and makes the character heroic in her struggle.
Malkovich can be a bit twitchy and he does have his quirks here, most of which the real Lucien Laurin possessed (the loud slacks, the hideous hats and so on). However, Malkovich reigns in his performance (no pun intended) quite well and allows the volatile Lucien to take center stage. Thompson and Glenn both are memorable in their brief screen time. Secretariat’s hot-tempered jockey Ron Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Thorwath and it brings realism to the racing scenes which are well-done in general.
The movie is going to inevitably be compared to Seabiscuit and that really doesn’t do it justice. That horse was an unlikely champion, a horse that didn’t come from bluebloods of breeding, but became a popular attraction as much as a racing champion (although he won his share of races). Seabiscuit was revered; Secretariat was respected.
There has been some complaining, mostly from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon Magazine, that Wallace, an avowed Christian, had turned the movie into a kind of Tea Party manifesto with overtly Christian themes. Quite frankly, while there is a quote from the Book of Job at the beginning and ending of the movie and a couple of hymns on the soundtrack, this is no more Christian than Braveheart was. As for its conservative leanings, well, I don’t think it was particularly endorsing a return to the period as O’Hehir seems to think it does as it was merely depicting that time. O’Hehir complains that no-one in the movie mentions the Vietnam War, and yet Penny’s daughter is shown to be an anti-war activist. Which war did O’Hehir think they were referring to?
Disney is known for their underdog sports stories, from Miracle to The Rookie to Invincible but this one doesn’t really fit the format, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can only watch Hoosiers so many times, after all. With the strong performances by its leads, racing sequences that utilize digital cameras to bring viewers closer into the action than ever before, this becomes a solid sports movie that doesn’t really fit the “underdog” label real well, but does fit in as quality entertainment.
REASONS TO GO: Really strong performances by Malkovich and Lane, as well as some compelling racing footage.
REASONS TO STAY: Pales in comparison to Seabiscuit. I never got that sense of overcoming overwhelming odds that other sports movies portray.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but mainly okay for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trophy for the Triple Crown seen after the Belmont was the actual trophy won by Secretariat that was loaned to the production by the Kentucky Derby Museum. While most of the racing footage was recreations done for the film, the footage of the Preakness seen on the living room TV set of the Tweedys was the actual race footage from 1973.
HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I’m really torn. Some of the scenes look really good on the big screen but at the end of the day, I think home viewing is perfectly okay for this one.
FINAL RATING: 6/10