|Secretariat | Directed by Randall Wallace | Written by Mike Rich | with Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Otto Thorwarth, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Drew Roy | Walt Disney Pictures | 116 minutes|
Anyone who saw Secretariat power down the homestretch to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths is likely of the opinion that he or she witnessed the greatest performance ever by a thoroughbred on a racetrack. But fast horses don't automatically make for good movies. Back in 2003, Universal turned Seabiscuit into the champion of the little guy. Now, Disney has turned Secretariat into the horse who can "go the distance," save the family farm, and fulfill the dream of millions for a Triple Crown winner. Mike Rich's screenplay (which was suggested by William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion
) goes straight to the cliché factory, with duds like "Life is ahead of you; if you don't run at it, you don't know how far you can go" and "You've taught our children what it means to be a real woman." What keeps the film out of the claiming ranks is a tough Diane Lane as Secretariat's owner and an over-the-top John Malkovich as his trainer.
Indeed, Secretariat is as much Penny Tweedy's story as it is her horse's. It's the late '60s, her father, utilities magnate Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn), is failing, and so is his Meadow Stable. Penny is a Denver housewife with three kids and little apparent interest in racing, but she flies to Virginia, recruits French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin and French-Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte (real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth), and — against the advice of her husband (Dylan Walsh) and her brother (Dylan Baker) — keeps the stable going. When her father dies, a $6 million estate tax looms, but a stubborn Penny persists, syndicating two-year-old champion Secretariat's breeding rights for that amount. The rest, with the occasional setback, is racing history, as Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and finally the Belmont.
Not that we get to see the real thing. As in Seabiscuit, the re-creations are fragmented Chicago style, with lots of thundering hooves and flaring nostrils and close-ups of equine eyeballs. No whips are brandished — the jockeys don't even drive their horses to the wire. (The idea must have been that no animal would be abused in the making of the film, but the result looks as if the jocks had all bet on one another's horses.) And to listen to the re-created call of the various races, you'd think Secretariat was the only horse running — as he nears the Belmont finish line, the track announcer screams, "Ride him, Ronnie, ride him!"