REVIEW: Secretariat Spreads the Gospel of One Audacious Horse
Randall Wallace's Secretariat opens with a voice-over by the movie's star, Diane Lane, quoting from the Book of Job. If, like most sane people, you're inclined to flee movies that open with biblical quotes, you might want to concentrate on the image that accompanies those words: The camera shows us a racehorse who's just been loaded into the gate and who, it would seem, is anxious to run. The lens creeps in close to show us his supernaturally alert, twitching ears, his enormous, restless eyes, his nostrils big as portholes. Crikey! Forget the biblical stuff -- if that horse's bold, magnificent face doesn't strike the fear of the Lord into you, I don't know what will.
In recent weeks there's been much made of the fact that Disney, the studio behind Secretariat, has aggressively marketed the movie to faith-based groups, the same way Warner Bros. targeted similar groups with last year's The Blind Side. As icky as that marketing strategy might be, the sins of the marketing department shouldn't necessarily become visited on the filmmaker. Because while Secretariat -- a sort of dual biopic of the great racehorse and his no-nonsense, eminently likable owner, Penny Tweedy (née Chenery) -- is certainly a slick, deeply conventional and highly fictionalized piece of work, it's hardly the anti-Satan in disguise. In fact, for all its big-studio glossiness, the movie gets one thing -- a very slippery thing -- right: It captures the greatness of this audacious, guileless beast without anthropomorphizing him, cutesifying him or in any way trimming him down to an explicable phenomenon. In other words, Secretariat allows the horse otherwise known as Big Red to own his mystery.
That's not to say that Wallace (writer of Braveheart and director of We Were Soldiers) doesn't take some significant liberties with the story, or that he doesn't make some lousy choices. Working from a script by Mike Rich (writer of other inspirational but not-terrible movies like The Rookie and Finding Forrester), Wallace outlines in bodaciously broad terms the story of the horse who won the Triple Crown in 1973, the first in 25 years to do. In this semi-factual version of the story -- inspired by William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion -- Lane plays Penny Chenery, a Denver housewife who, circa 1969, takes over her ailing father's Virginia horse farm. She knows something about horses, but nothing about horse racing. Honoring a deal made earlier by her father, she meets the wealthy financier Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) for a coin toss: The winner will get his or her pick of two of the farm's choice foals. Phipps wins the toss and takes what he believes is the finer animal; Penny is thrilled because she gets the horse she really wanted, the one she suspects is destined for greatness.
Penny stands by that horse -- the one she calls Big Red -- even when the people around her (mostly ultra-traditional men, including her brother, played by Dylan Baker, and her husband, played by Dylan Walsh) try to persuade her to sell him. She defiantly assembles a team of people to work with Big Red, among them the flamboyant (in the movie, at least) trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a groom who's also something of a horse whisperer, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and one scrappy jockey, Ron Turcotte (played, with an enjoyable degree of subliminal swagger, by real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth).
Together, this team of determined horse lovers turn a loser horse into a champion -- well, actually, no. In real life, Secretariat was never an underdog, and he isn't one in the movie's terms, either. Even so, Wallace and Rich manage to disguise his story as a "little horse that could" saga, partly by setting Chenery up as a woman who defied the odds by raising a champion in a racing world dominated by men. That's not the worst approach you could take, particularly when you've got Lane in the leading role: Dressed in a selection of old-school pleated skirts, cashmere sweaters and, later, proper-but-zingy shift dresses (costume designer Julie Weiss gets the details of Chenery's wardrobe just right), Lane plays Penny Chenery as a no-nonsense woman who sees respecting her horse as the greater part of her job. Lane is convincing every moment, even when she's called upon to do ridiculous things like look an ailing Secretariat in the eyes and will him, silently, to eat. That's perhaps one of the movie's more fanciful visions of what racehorse owners actually do (or, at least, what the real-life Chenery might have done). But Lane plays the moment perfectly: Instead of giving it the floatiness of a warm fuzzy, she goes for the texture of hardcore worsted wool.
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