– Summary –
Director : Randall Wallace
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly, Drew Roy, Nestor Serrano, Fred Dalton Thompson.
Approx Running Time : 125 Minutes
Synopsis: A woman takes up running her family’s horse racing farm, resting their fortunes on the prospects of a single horse known as Secretariat.
What we think : Uplifting, emotionally shallow sports film cannot overcome a dearth of tension and hollow characters to become truly inspirational, yet it tries hard and wears its heart on its sleeve. The film has issues of pacing and the passage of time, but brushes this aside in favor of a winning combo of Diane Lane, John Malkovich and Margo Martindale, all of whom hold this film together. Yet, when all is said and done, it’s a film about a horse and unless you’re especially fond of this kind of thing, the more discerning of viewers might skip this one in favor of the latest from Michael Bay. You could do a lot worse than giving Secretariat a shot, though.
I admit, horses and horse racing do absolutely nothing for me. Zip. Nada. Zilch. I have no interest in the “sport of kings” outside of the great horse race of Australia, the Melbourne Cup, when all of a sudden I develop a passion for the sport that outweigh my predisposition to hate it. That being said, there’s something about an underdog story that piques my interest, and although Secretariat was never an underdog himself, his owner certainly was. My knowledge of Secretariat stopped at the man-in-a-costume iteration you see from time to time on Craig Ferguson’s The Late Late Show; a horse racing buffoon I most certainly am, since my knowledge of the industry is pretty much gleaned entirely from Seabiscuit, a film with which Secretariat has striking similarities. I approached Secretariat, released in 2010 by Disney, with an appropriate level of curiosity (none) and expectation (low), and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by what I got. That’s not to say it’s a good film, but I did have a good time with it.
In the early 1970’s, Denver housewife Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) takes up the managing of her father’s horse stud farm, after the death of her mother. Her father, Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn) has allowed the farm to become nearly untenable, thanks largely to a disloyal racing trainer, whom Penny promptly fires. With her father’s secretary, Mrs Hamm (Margo Martindale) and almost-retired trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) assisting her, Penny obtains a new horse sired by a famous racehorse, Bold Ruler, in order to obtain a young colt to train and race. And so, Big Red was born, and began to race under the name of Secretariat. As the family finances begin to depend largely on Secretariat’s performance, thanks to a deal Penny does with the wealthy Ogen Phipps (James Cromwell), Secretariat must win the Triple Crown of racing – the Preakness Stakes, The Kentucky Derby, and the Belmont Stakes, being the three major races in US Horse racing – in order to remain in the ownership of the family, otherwise Phipps takes him away. As Secretariat wins each race, the pressure mounts: can he win the Belmont and etch his name into the record books?
I’ll say it right now: I think had I any foreknowledge about Secretariat and his feats on the track, my experience with this film would have been significantly diminished. As it was, I knew virtually nothing, so the build-up to his racing results and the tension therein was heightened, because I knew not of the outcome beforehand. If you have any idea on what Secretariat accomplished, then this film will perhaps not hold as much elation as I experienced… okay, perhaps not elation, but release of emotion once the climax of the film comes about. Randall Wallace, who gave us the bloody We Were Soldiers, overtly literary The Man In The Iron Mask, and wrote Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, delivers a serviceable sporting film, replete with last-gasp victory, slimy competitors and the ubiquitous newspaper reporters desperate for the story, and although you get the sense he approached the story with appropriate reverence, there’s something missing from the end result. The screenplay by Mike Rich and Sheldon Turner tries to evoke a certain time and the national euphoria of Secretariat’s dazzling performances on the track, although it can’t deliver on the character development in a truthfully meaningful manner. Sure, the characters are all real people, and the results of Secretariat’s races can be Googled with ease, but the film lacks something it so desperately needs: heart.
Diane Lane, as well as co-star John Malkovich, deliver performances I’d describe as “earnest”, even “heartfelt”, although the script delivers dialogue I’d describe equally as “trite” and “thinly hidden platitudes”, the kind of lazy film writing used as cinema shorthand without digging into the characters themselves. The identifiable themes of the film seem to be Penny’s resistance to remaining just another disillusioned housewife in early-70’s America, and Lucien’s resistance to being a has-been before being a never-was, although none of these themes amount to much when the primary focus seems to be on recreating the famed horse’s amazing races. There’s a sense of restraint, I think, on the part of the script, in that it delivers only as much as the people involved seemed to want to be shown; Penny’s friction with her brother, played wonderfully by Dylan Baker, is of little consequence to the end result of the film, although it is quite prominent early; the friction between Penny and her husband, played by Dylan Walsh, is equally downplayed, much to my disappointment. Great sports films are defined usually by the hero overcoming the odds, although in Secretariat the odds never seem to be quite stacked against the horse or the humans like they should be. John Malkovich, meanwhile, mumbles his way through another obscure-but-thoughtful role as Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien. Malkovich is never stretched here, which is yet another shame for the story, considering how personal his struggle with his inner demons appears to be at the start. Nestor Serrano provides tacit Bad Guy status as the owner of Secretariat’s main rival, Sham, but it’s a small role at best.
It just seemed like the whole film was a series of half-done ideas strung together: it’s the kind of film which tells us how to feel about what’s going on, instead of allowing us to actually develop those feelings ourselves. At one point, Penny is described as being able to communicate somehow with her prized horse, with some sort of mind-meld idea, although it passes like a fart in a storm, if the truth was told. Yes, ideas and concepts have no longevity in Secretariat, and this is the fundamental flaw in the film. You just don’t get any depth to the story, which is crucial for audience investment. It’s such a shame, too, considering the production values involved; and having said that, it’s entirely expected from a family-friendly Disney movie of this kind. There’s only so much the youngsters can take in, right?
Secretariat is undone by a shallowness of character and an inability to find cohesive central truth to any of the human roles, and the poorly written script is the basis for every failing forthwith. The cast are all fine with what little they have to work with, and Randall Wallace does generate a little energy through the obligatory racing scenes, but it rings hollow thanks to a lack of depth in main character Penny and a connection with her to us, the audience. It’s like a midday movie on an A-movie budget, and that’s disappointing. The film is definitely watchable, for sure, and at times I actually found it genuinely thrilling, but anybody with knowledge of Secretariat’s history will probably find this both boring and unassuming in the extreme. The most annoying this about this film is that it had so much potential – it’s a true story, surely somebody could have found more tension to mine from the truth of what happened? – a potential it squandered by not giving us a human being in sight to care about.
What others are saying about Secretariat:
Sam at Duke & The Movies has this to say: “A rather traditional and by the numbers film, “Secretariat” constantly looses it’s footing when striving for something more than an inspirational calamity. “
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