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Secretariat (2010) ***

October 8, 2010

written by: Mike Rich
produced by: Mike Ciardi, Pete DeStefano & Gordon Gray
directed by: Randall Wallace
rated PG (for brief mild language)
116 min.
U.S. release date: October 8, 2010
From way up in the stands, this is a movie that looks to be yet another horse flick. It may even be dismissed because of that line of thought. That would be a mistake. “Secretariat” is not “Seabiscuit”, it isn’t trying to be, nor could it ever be like that 2003 film. Each are their own beast from two completely different time periods. What they do have in common is that they are both well-acted and well-made stories revolving around a horse. “Secretariat” though, inches its way ahead, becoming something quite rare these days: an exceptional  feel-good family film for any ages. 
Maybe I lost you with that last declaration. I am well aware that there are some who view these inspirational sports movie as bland, rote, or moot. Granted, they can be I am quite aware of the standard formula employed that often turns viewers the other way. Their reasoning is that in a “based-on-a-true-story” movie, they usually already know the outcome going in. I’ll give them that. Still, it remains a legitimate genre that has proven itself in the past (“Rudy” and “Hoosiers” for example) and, when done right, this kind of film can stir the right emotions….if you let it.
Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) is no horse expert and although they have always been in her family, she doesn’t know much about ranching, let alone training. She does have intuition and drive going for her though.  It may be taken for granted at her Denver home where she lives with her husband (Dylan Walsh) and their four kids, but it really stands out when she gets a call that her mother died. This event causes her to return to Meadow Stables, the family horse farm in Virginia, where she visits her father (a comatose Scott Glenn) who suffers from dementia. Penny knows that someone needs to step up and take on the responsibilities of maintaining a ranch that is in disarray. And we know that she’s going to be the one to do just that.
Ignoring the understandable (yet formulaic) disapproval from her husband and brother (a one-note Dylan Baker), Penny moves forward with saving the property from ruin. We see her win a coin toss with financier/breeder Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) which results in her winning the horse that will eventually be called Secretariat. Supposedly, her woman’s intuition could foresee that her father’s thoroughbred, Somethingroyal, would give birth to a chestnut colt (nicknamed Big Red) with amazing strength, stamina and heart. She winds up recruiting eccentric trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), with his gaudy hats and jackets, who had been unsuccessful in his attempts to retire.
Regrettably missing out on family time, Penny inevitably must spend more time in Virginia once Big Red hits his stride. Despite the opposition a prominent female player faces in a male-dominated sport, she pushes through using her determination, charm and resourcefulness. In the process, both Penny and Secretariat develop an integral connection that serves as inspiration for both. Whatever comes her way, Penny remains committed to Big Red, who joins the racing circuit as Secretariat, and together, we see them both chasing a dream with the odds against them.
SECRETARIAT John Malkovich
Having written “The Rookie”, “Miracle” and “Invincible”, screenwriter Mike Rich is no stranger to Disney sports dramas, and he provides here another serviceable script, filled with many of the typical conventions of the genre. I guess it’s kind of hard to do without some of these predictable storytelling beats in a movie like this. At least he has William Nack, author of  Secretariat: The Making of a Champion on hand as a valuable historical consultant. Nack’s accuracy helps viewers take in the generous doses of saccharine Rich can’t help himself with. With a movie like this, the accelerated drama doesn’t necessarily rely on an amazing script, just a decent one as the director and actors are left to flesh everything else out appropriately. 
Despite the movie’s title, this is definitely the story of Penny and her devotion amid the scoffers and naysayers. Diane Lane, with her Pat Nixon hair, owns the role, bringing a needed strength and vulnerability to Penny, a woman who knew she was in over her head. While Lane solidly carries the film, she is surrounded by great turns by some veteran character actors. Thankfully, Malkovich isn’t completely hamming it up here as he has in recent films. He brings a fun quirkiness to Lucien as he goes off in French whenever he’s frustrated or angry which he balances with moments of expressive quietness. Lane and Malkovich work great together on-screen, providing an unsuspecting odd couple.
Two standout roles belong to a veteran character actress and a relatively new actor from Harvey, Illinois. Margo Martingale plays Miss Ham, a close friend of the Chenery family, providing support for Penny as she makes her way through tough decisions. She gives an effortless, down-to-earth mentality to the role that is often taken for granted in family films like this. Her back and forth with Malkovich delivers some funny bits as well. You can throw a stick at just about any movie in the past couple decades and would probably find that Martingale was in some of them. Then there’s Nelsan Ellis who almost steals the film with his soft-spoken yet enthusiastic role as Eddie Sweat, Big Red’s groom. Ellis is best known for his role as LaFayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood”, and was almost unrecognizable to me, but there’s no escaping that voice of his. Rounding out the cast is windbag Fred Dalton Thompson as another ranch owner Bull Hancock and Kevin Connolly as reporter Bill Hack. It’s also fun to see the real Penny Chenery makes an appearance as a bystander at the Belmont race.
 SECRETARIAT Winner Circle


Director Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers” and Oscar winner for his “Braveheart” script) injects the right amount of courage and valor often seen in his films. He has that 70’s look down well enough but some of the cinematography seemed a bit too updated. There are sequences filmed in HD that really didn’t need it, making the film’s look all but lose its historical lens. It does add suspense though as does his  jockey cam (for lack of a better term) that sits right in the saddle of the action. From the stands to the track, Wallace gives us a welcome old-fashioned feel to the race scenes.
This film is easily a pleasurable experience for those who enjoy this genre but I couldn’t help but notice the Christian angle as well. It’s not overt but unfortunately, it is a little heavy-handed. While I enjoy the Edwin Hawkin Singer’s version of “Oh Happy Day!”, I didn’t need to hear it twice. It seems natural the first time but then a forced coda the second time around. I dunno if Disney is aiming for the same crowd, but I could easily see fans of “The Blind Side” gravitate to this. 
I guess that’s a minor flaw for a film that does get us as excited as fans at the Kentucky Derby back in the day. Indeed, there were plenty of people around me catching their breath and cheering on Secretariat. That says a great deal since, like me and you, they went in knowing full well that this Triple Crown-winning horse was a winner back in 1973. Clearly, he and his owner are still an inspiration today, making out hearts race right along with them.

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