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Ellen Sterling sterling

Movie Review: Secretariat

Friday, October 8, 2010

In the winner's circle with Secretariat are (from left)
Diane Lane, Dylan Baker, Nelsan Ellis,
Otto Thorwarth and John Malkovich
Photo: John Bramley/Walt Disney Pictures

Is there anyone who will buy — or has bought — a ticket to see Secretariat, Disney’s film about the unlikely winner of the racing’s Triple Crown in 1973, who doesn’t know the story? Probably not. For this is another of those films — like Seabiscuit or, for that matter, like any film about World War II — where the fact that the audience knows the ending doesn’t seem to detract from the story-telling process.

Secretariat is not only the story of the horse but, naturally, the story of those people who made it possible for the horse to win. Mostly, there’s Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), daughter of Virginia horse breeder Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn) who is no longer capable of managing his horses. His daughter, a married housewife with four children living in Denver, must take the reins (Oooh! Sorry for that!) of the family business or sell it. Of course, horses are in her blood and she decides, against huge odds for success, to persevere.

In short order she: fires her trainer, hires a trainer and loses a coin toss for the choice of which colt sired by Bold Ruler she will get. The loss nets her the horse known at the beginning (and forever to those who know him best) as Big Red. Her Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) is eccentric and not too successful, but he see a winner in Big Red. And, of course, he is right.

Lending stellar support are Chris Chenery’s secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), loyal trainer Eddie Sweat (True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis), Penny’s husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), brother Hollis Chenery (Dylan Baker), sportswriter Bill Nack (Kevin Connolly), jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorworth) and long-time breeders Bull Hancock (Fred Dalton Thompson) and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). There are also five horses portraying Secretariat.

This stellar cast is directed by Randall Wallace (who had a guest arc on the latest season of HBO’s Entourage, whence cometh Kevin Connolly) from a script by Mike Rich. While there is mention of the Vietnam War, even some tame anti-war protest, the film is almost Disney boilerplate.

The world of Secretariat is a sunny one. The bad guy — “Pancho” Martin, the owner of Secretariat’s closest competitor, Sham — is such a caricature of a bad guy that it’s difficult to take him seriously. The doubters in Penny Chenery’s circle all, of course, become supporters and the ending is a happy one. The real Penny Chenery actually makes an appearance.

The acting is OK but, unlike some others, I don’t think Diane Lane gives a Sandra Bullock-like Oscar®-worthy performance. (Then again, I didn’t think Bullock deserved the award). I do, however, believe that Malkovich’s uncharacteristic turn deserves recognition, perhaps from the Golden Globes for comedy. At any rate, Secretariat is pleasant and fun to watch. It is fascinating that, even when everyone knows the horse wins, the tension is real.

It is only after one leaves the theater that the realization of how weak the script is and how typical Disneyesque the entire thing is. The world is not — and was not in 1973 — all sunshine and lollipops. Plucky people with dreams and determination didn’t always come out on top. Yet, for two hours we are lulled into believing this is how it is and was. That’s not a bad thing at all. It is, in fact, kind of fun. As long as you don’t think about it too much after it ends.

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