'Secretariat': Middle of the Pack
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Yet another feel-good product from Disney, in the athletically uplifting vein of "The Rookie" and "Miracle," "Secretariat" is as pastel-pretty as a Sunday school illustration. It's hard to mine much of a lesson -- or dramatic tension -- from the story of a born champion who came from behind only because that's the way he liked to break records and win races (16 out of the 21 he ran). So Mike Rich, writing a script suggested by turf journalist William Nack's "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," livens up the doldrums between races with a feminist backstory about housewife Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), who comes into her own through ownership and love of a big red colt named Secretariat.
Unimaginatively directed by Randall Wallace, "Secretariat" often visibly strains to avoid painful or messy reality: Have faith, horsies never crap, and adversity never sticks for long. Forget normal conversation; every exchange is a sermonette, imparting hushed, Hallmark-card platitudes. Cumulatively, it's like being pleasantly slathered in warm, soapy water, with frequent splashes of "Oh Happy Day" to up the feel-good ante. (On top of that, former songwriter Wallace penned an end-credit ditty, "It's Who You Are," that "encapsulated the qualities I wanted in the whole film.")
We first meet Penny Tweedy in Denver-based domesticity that's pure "Father Knows Best." Setting dinner before her mildly self-serving lawyer-hubby (Dylan Walsh) and four picture-perfect offspring, Lane's blond-coiffed hausfrau is all sunshine mom, a dependable fixture at the familial table. Then her mother dies, leaving Penny in charge of an ailing dad (Scott Glenn, who occasionally pops out of dementia long enough to deliver gems like "Run your race") and a Virginia horse farm that's going broke fast.
The self-effacing woman who gave up a career to marry has only to spend a moment in dad's stables to metamorphose into Super(Business)woman. In the blink of an eye, Penny's fired a crooked manager, aced a super-rich breeder out of a foal she believes will be a champion, and pretty much left family life behind. Her voice grows firm, even takes on wit and edge, but she always remains a perfect lady, stylishly groomed and charming even in the clinches (mostly of the sexist variety, given male domination of thoroughbred racing). And this horse lover's no Hitchcockian Marnie; Penny's bond with Secretariat steers clear of sexual sublimation or the kind of hormonal passion with which Elizabeth Taylor burns in "National Velvet." No, in Disney's sanitized view of human/animal nature, she and "Big Red" are more like bosom buddies, with mutual dreams of winning their respective races.
Penny's self-absorbed kids hardly seem to notice her absence, but hubby turns sour, then becomes an outright stumbling block along with her Harvard economist brother (Dylan Baker). Still, Penny's blessed with a colorful trinity of devoted disciples: flamboyant French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin, famously fond of "Superfly" haberdashery (John Malkovich, his scenery-chewing less compulsive than usual); faithful groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, diva Lafayette of "True Blood," here a sweet, upscale Stepin Fetchit), and ultra-feisty jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Hall of Famer Otto Thorwarth, quite good in his acting debut). Oh, and Miss Ham (motherly Margo Martindale), faithful assistant, makes four. Mainly on board for silent support and reaction shots, it's she who gives Big Red his proper name.
So, what about the magnificent beast who gives the movie its name? All his acolytes treat Secretariat as a nearly divine object of love and even adoration, channeling their own shortcomings and ambitions through the thoroughbred who possessed a heart two-and-a-half times normal size. Courtesy of a small digital camera attached to the saddle, we can hear that mighty heart beating and the huge horse's breath coming fast and deep as he turbines down the Belmont Stakes track. But this visual experience falls short of the authentically visceral; it's a gimmick that never really catches the breathtaking majesty that was Secretariat in motion, galloping 31 lengths ahead of every rival to win the Triple Crown.
Surely noble Secretariat, perhaps the greatest racehorse who ever lived, deserves tougher, more kinetic moviemaking than this. For a taste of the real deal, check out this brilliant, single, unbroken take -- purely cinematic -- "shot" by Bill Nack, racetrack poet:
"A set of motions interlocked as one, a kind of chain reaction started by the hands: the flicking of the wrists, the grabbing of the bit, the pulling on the right line, the swinging outside, and then the first thrust forward, with dancer's grace, when Secretariat raised his forelegs in a single stride that lifted him and swept him ... and set him down sprinting three horses wide on Pimlico's tight first turn, like a hoop around a barrel, and through all this Turcotte sat still, having moved only his hands, and that's all he did."
See Also: Great Racetrack Movie Moments
Kat Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and websites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.