I know how movies like this are supposed to work, and this time, it doesn’t bother me one bit. Secretariat, in the tradition of recent films like The Blind Side, Invictus, and The Longshots, adapts a true story into a reliable but successful inspirational sports drama. I admit that I knew nothing of the real Secretariat before seeing ads for the film, and I still know nothing about horseracing. However, I do know a good movie when I see one (although many have suggested otherwise). Secretariat is, indeed, a good movie, full of excitement and hope, brimming with enthusiasm, steadfast in its declaration that good things can happen as long as we have faith in ourselves and the people around us. Perhaps this is a bit idealistic, but since when has that been a bad thing? Sometimes, we actively seek movies like this, movies that can reinvigorate the idealist in us all.
Secretariat, for those of you who don’t know, was an American thoroughbred racehorse who in 1973 made history by becoming the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years. He also set new race records by completing the Kentucky Derby in 1:59 and the Belmont Stakes in 2:24 – records that, to this day, have not been broken. The film, suggested by William Nack’s book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, does a wonderful job not only of depicting both races, but also of dramatizing the struggle to make his achievements possible. At the center of this struggle was housewife and mother Penney Chenery, who in the late 1960s took control of her ill father’s horse breeding ranch in Virginia, which was suffering financially. It was there that Secretariat was born in the spring of 1969.
Chenery is portrayed in the film by Diane Lane as a determined, intelligent woman who trusts her instincts so deeply, it’s almost as if the word “doubt” has absolutely no meaning. After refusing to sell her father’s farm, much to the chagrin of her faithless brother (Dylan Baker), she participates in a coin toss with millionaire Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), which would determine who would have first choice over the farm’s two pregnant mares; technically speaking, she loses, although she’s left with the mare she wanted, so in fact, she wins. No one other than her believed her mare would give birth to a quality racehorse, considering the parentage. When the colt is born, however, it’s obvious that there’s something special about him – he stands and begins walking faster than anyone working for the farm had ever seen.
The film does a good job conveying the sheer magnetism of Secretariat. Physically, he looks no different from any other horse. And yet, when the camera goes in for a close up of his face, his eyes gleam with passion and energy. Everyone around him senses it, including his groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who in real life spent more time with Secretariat than with any other human being. In due time, Chenery is able to convince a retired trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to give up spending the rest of his days playing golf; he too sees something special in Secretariat. Laurin is an eccentric man – moody and demanding, with a wardrobe that suggests he may have gone colorblind at some point in his life.
What the film never adequately addresses is Chenery’s balancing act between her farm life and her relationship with her family. According to what we’re shown, she essentially abandons her husband, a lawyer named John Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), and her four children, the oldest a teenager named Kate (Amanda Michalka), who in the turmoil of the early 1970s became a liberal activist, in part, I suspect, to rebel against the old fashioned beliefs of her father. While Chenery generally seems to miss her family – she often cries whenever she speaks to them on the phone – it’s never made explicitly clear why she found Secretariat and his racing career more worthy of her attention. I would have appreciated a more thorough examination of this aspect of her life.
Despite this, we find that Kate is actually inspired by her mother’s determination, and by the end, she will become her most vocal supporter. Indeed, many scenes with Chenery are no less than inspirational. Some of the best are reserved for pre-race press conferences, where Chenery and her opponent Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) trade verbal jabs, his angrier and more direct, hers quieter and more underhanded. There’s no need for her to be hostile. She knows Secretariat is a winner. There’s a scene later in the film, for example, when she asks to have a moment alone with the horse; when Sweat and Laurin step aside, Chenery and Secretariat face each other without saying anything for a few seconds, after which she quietly but confidently says, “Okay then. See you in the morning.”
Little moments like this, moments that underscore Chenery’s strength of character, are what make Secretariat such a pleasant movie, more so, in my opinion, than the racing sequences. I will not say that this is one of the year’s best films, for while it is hugely entertaining, it also does little more than follow a very well established formula. That being said, it follows its formula very well, giving audiences every reason to cheer once the credits start to roll. In addition, the performances are wonderful; I’m fairly certain Diane Lane in particular will be considered for an award or two come springtime. If it worked for Sandra Bullock, it could work for her too.