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Secretariat

Secretariat

Rated PG, 122 min. Directed by Randall Wallace. Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn, Amanda Michalka, Kevin Connolly, Eric Lange.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 8, 2010

Saddle up for some old-fashioned inspirational movie entertainment as Disney mounts the story of horse-racing’s 1973 Triple Crown winner. Actually, the focus of the movie is not really the horse but the people who owned and trained him and shared with him the will to succeed. How do we know the animal had a will to succeed? Because owner Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) stares into his eyes and channels his desires. This is a showcase role for Lane, one that seems to position her for the kind of award-season recognition earned last year by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side for her not dissimilar turn as a no-nonsense, Southern housewife whose gut instincts lead her to accomplish great things. As in The Blind Side, the outcome of Secretariat’s story is already part of our popular knowledge prior to any film treatment of the events, thus allowing the movie to focus on the characters’ journeys rather than their finish lines. In this, Secretariat differs from the usual come-from-behind sports drama in which scrappy, underdog heroes offer lessons in tenacity and perseverance. From the moment Secretariat was born, the horse was a bona fide contender, a racehorse whose inner compass pointed toward the winner’s circle. Thus, Secretariat is more a story of Mrs. Tweedy’s unexpected march to the championship. Despite the unflattering early Seventies period garb and hairdos, Lane is radiant as the Denver housewife and mother of four who takes over her family’s horse farm in Virginia after the death of her mother and the infirmity of her father (Glenn), a legendary horse-breeder. Drafted to her side are the eccentric trainer Lucien Lauren (a colorful yet restrained Malkovich), groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis), and jockey Ron Turcotte (played by real-life jockey Thorwarth). Her focus and determination astonish the other owners and breeders in the male-dominated world of racing and sideswipe her husband and children, who would clearly prefer that she spend more time with them, although they hardly complain. Mrs. Tweedy is painted as something of a feminist icon of the time. (Lest we forget, events such as Billie Jean King’s trouncing of Bobby Riggs were contemporaneous with Secretariat’s racing feat and became part of the public debate about women’s equality.) Written by Mike Rich (The Rookie, The Nativity Story, and Finding Forrester) and directed by Braveheart scribe Wallace, Secretariat can’t shake its inspirational roots, and things such as the opening and closing quotations from the Book of Job and the dramatic inclusions of the spiritual tunes, “Oh Happy Day” and “I’ll Take You There” may even capture some of the same faith-based audiences that helped swell the box-office receipts of The Blind Side. Terrific supporting performances bolster Lane’s star turn, and some audiences will cheer in their theatre seats as if they were at the track, but Secretariat is ultimately a conventional story, conventionally told.
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