Monday, October 18, 2010


My father loved horse racing.  He had no specific reason to, as he didn’t grow up riding, nor was he raised by horse owners, but something about the sport connected with him.  “The horses know what’s going on,” he told me.  “They understand how racing works.”  We watched the Triple Crown races every year as a family, and every year we heard the story of Secretariat.  “A lot of people didn’t think he would have the endurance to run the Belmont,” my father said.  “When he crossed the finish line, there wasn’t another horse on the TV screen.  No other horse has ever run 1.5 miles on any dirt track as fast as Secretariat.”  That statement holds true to this day.

The story captivated me as a child, and it still does.  Secretariat carries the spirit of the story very well, though the film focuses more on the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, than on the horse himself.  It’s the story of how a woman of steel was stubborn and persistent enough to allow her horse to reach his potential.  When Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) takes over her parents’ farm, disagreements arise over how best to manage it.  She takes financial risks that she really can’t afford in order to get the farm in decent shape.  After suspecting her horse trainer of being dishonest, she fires him on the spot and hires Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich) to replace him.  The film follows their journey to the 1973 Triple Crown, where Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
There aren’t many surprises here, as it’s one of the most well-known of all sports stories.  What the film brings is an inside look at the people surrounding Secretariat: the team that believed in him when no one else did.  I don’t know how much was changed from the true story, but my guess would be not much.  Even in the midst of traditional feel-good elements, Secretariat seems authentic.  The movie clearly knows a lot about horse racing, and Mike Rich’s screenplay strikes me as smart and well-researched.

Sure, there are some formulaic bits that crop up in almost all of these inspirational sports pictures, but a few notable elements elevate Secretariat above most others in its genre.  The performances are solid all around, most notably Diane Lane as the uncompromising woman whose certainty of Secretariat’s success falls somewhere on the scale between admirable and reckless.  She conveys a lot with her face (as all good actors do), adding layers to the character that weren’t written into the screenplay.  The other memorable performance comes from John Malkovich as the kind and eccentric trainer.  Malkovich brings humor and magic to the character, taking good moments and turning them great.

The cinematography stands out, especially in the racing sequences.  Horse racing isn’t an easy sport to film, but Secretariat has cameras flying down the track in the midst of the horses, between the horses, and even from the jockey’s perspective.  The racing footage is compelling, and that’s important in a film like this.  Considering that Secretariat’s Triple Crown victories are among the most viewed and well-known of all horse races (all three of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races are on YouTube multiple times), the faithful recreation of those races is especially impressive.

The screenplay occasionally dips into familiar feel-good waters, but the film’s centerpiece never fails, which is Penny’s fierce devotion to her horse.  Secretariat doesn’t shy away from the fact that Penny poured her energy into Secretariat’s success even to the neglect of her own family.  Her husband says at one point, “When your horse people call the house, they don’t ask for Mrs. Tweedy, they ask for Ms. Chenery (her maiden name).  Is that who you’ve become?”  Her children are consistently proud of her, though she does become more of a stranger to them as the narrative progresses.  Penny doesn’t abandon her family, but even against her own wishes, she sometimes places them second to Secretariat.

It’s hard not to be inspired by this story.  As Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, one of the characters mutters, “That’s impossible,” which pretty much sums it up.  Secretariat was an unbelievably gifted athlete, shattering records right and left and setting new records which have yet to be surpassed.  At every great race and during every great moment, one woman looked on from the stands who had the heart of a champion just as much as her horse.  When Secretariat died at the age of 19, his autopsy revealed that his heart was two and a half times larger than normal.  The same may well be true of Penny Chenery Tweedy.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief mild language.

The “brief mild language” is barely there, but Secretariat is still aimed at adults.  Animal-loving kiddos will probably enjoy it, but some children might be bored by the dialogue and drama.  As far as content goes, I wouldn’t object to children seeing it, but the film may be slower and more dialogue-driven than some kids are used to.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering which movie you were going to this weekend. I've been meaning to catch this, but I don't think I'll make it while it's still in theatres--a definite for the ole Netflix, though. Great review, as always!