SECRETARIAT (2010) (***)
It's hard to not think of the Oscar-nominated SEABISCUIT when thinking about this film. The comparison doesn't help this film about the 1970s Triple Crown winner. It has less ambition than the film about the Depression era underdog. But it does fit nicely into the canon of Disney's inspirational sports films.
Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, THE PERFECT STORM) was a housewife before inheriting the horse farm of her father Chris (Scott Glenn, THE RIGHT STUFF). She was determined to honor her dad's legacy by racing their latest filly to the Triple Crown. Going against the wishes of her husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh, TV's NIP/TUCK) and brother Hollis (Dylan Baker, HAPPINESS), she risked everything on Secretariat, a horse that critics didn't think had the stamina to win the longer races.
To train her horse she convinced retired trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) to stop golfing (which he was terrible at) and mold a champion. Lucien brought in jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), a rider who rode his last horse so hard that the animal's heart exploded. As his caretaker, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, TV's TRUE BLOOD) spent more time with the horse than anyone and knew him the best. Miss Ham (Margo Martindale, MILLION DOLLAR BABY) was Penny's father's longtime secretary and did the same for Penny. She came up for the official name for the horse that everyone else called Big Red.
Nine times out of ten a sports film is also an underdog tale. So it's hard to tell an underdog story about a horse that won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. So the film makes his owner Penny the underdog. She was an unlikely owner in a time when horse racing was a man's world. Taking on Secretariat was a huge financial risk, because after her father died she owed millions in estate taxes. The first half of the film focuses on these issues, but once Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, the film becomes a story about destiny.
There isn't much subtlety in the story with it's big speeches and outbursts. But the inherent likability of Lane carries the film far. She is supported well by Malkovich as a man who loves horses at the same time is driven crazy by them. Along with African-American Sweat and the reckless Turcotte, the foursome works well as a crew of outsiders. While her husband and brother are given no more dimension than being the ones who keep reminding her she's neglecting her housewife role, they do provide the doubt that makes us want her to succeed even more. Add in a tough challenger in Sham and his arrogant owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano, THE INSIDER) and you find yourself caught up in the story by its end.
Director Randall Wallace finds ways to make each of Secretariat's races unique. He uses the horse's tendency to surge from the back of the pack for nice dramatic effect. He puts his cameras on horses and within the races. The soundtrack booms with every foot fall. The beautiful cinematography and great sound design capture the power and grace of horses.
The film's pacing performs much like Secretariat. It hangs back, takes its time and then surges to the finish. It's easy to like a character with a dream and Lane makes that easier as I said. Her obstacles are tangible and the film skirts through without making her adversaries too cartoonish. This minimizes the schmaltz, which the film also skirts with, making the film more about the emotional victory of Penny instead of showing up the boys club. It's a story about people, and a horse, living up to their great potential.