Secretariat Review


All the comparisons to The Blind Side had me cringing. I’ve railed enough against John Lee Hancock’s saccharine Sandra Bullock vehicle on these pages, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t a fan, and I’ll admit to not being too high on Secretariat as I sat down in the theater to watch it. To my surprise, however, it turned out to be quite an enjoyable experience. Predictable and corny it certainly is, but it’s also inspiring and fun.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in horse racing knows the story of Secretariat, but if you’re not among those, Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 and is regarded by most as the greatest racing horse who ever lived. Ironically, the movie Secretariat is more about his owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane). Chenery (whose last name is actually Tweedy) grew up on her father’s (Scott Glenn) horse farm. When he falls ill, she returns home to Virginia to get his affairs in order. With the help of his loyal secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), the farm stops bleeding money and actually begins to turn a profit.

Then, Secretariat is born. Known by those close to him, including his unconventional trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), as Big Red, Secretariat came to Penny by fate. She loses a coin toss to fellow trainer Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), but she sees something in the majestic animal, and it’s that gut instinct that drives her and keeps her fighting for Secretariat, even when her back is against the wall. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying her instinct proved true.

The reason Secretariat succeeds is its story. It helps that I’m a pretty big horse racing fan (haven’t missed a Triple Crown race in years), but even those uninterested in the racing aspects of the film can appreciate an underdog story as earnest and enjoyable as this. It might not be the most subtle film (far from it), but it doesn’t pretend to be, and I appreciated that genuine quality about it. Director Randall Wallace wanted to create a crowd pleaser, and I think he did just that.

The film also features a fine ensemble of actors giving some surprisingly good performances. Diane Lane is the standout, developing Penny into a much more dynamic character than Sandra Bullock did in The Blind Side. Penny might be a cut from the same mold as Leigh Anne Tuohy, but she doesn’t feel cookie cutter. She’s vulnerable and unsure of herself, and she also has to deal with some great obstacles—money problems, the distance from her family, several deaths, and a pain in the ass rival trainer. There has been some talk about an Oscar nomination for Lane (though I don’t have her down in my Oscar predictions), and I really wouldn’t have any qualms about that.

John Malkovich gives the other standout performance, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering he can act his way out of a paper bag. This is a role that easily could have devolved into pure caricature, but Malkovich imbues Lucien with some real humanity. Margo Martindale is also worth mentioning as Miss Ham, the complete opposite of her character Million Dollar Baby. She offers unwavering support to Penny when everyone else in her life is questioning her.

I’d be lying if I said Secretariat is an example of filmmaking at its finest. It’s not. There are moments so pedestrian that Wallace almost lost me (the Bible quote in the beginning, the “Oh Happy Day” nonsense throughout). But on the strength of the story and some really good performances, I can unabashedly say I liked Secretariat and would recommend it to just about anyone.

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