A woman with a dream and a big horse seeks to conquer the world of horse racing in Secretariat, a big soaring-score, inspiring-story kind of movie.
Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) is a Colorado housewife raising four kids. But her roots are in Virginia, where her family owns a horse farm. After her mother dies, she steps in to help her father (Scott Glenn), who is ailing from what is probably Alzheimer’s, run the farm. At first, Penny and her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) agree that she’ll just help the farm get on its feet so they can sell it. But Penny likes running the horse farm and likes the business of raising horses with potential to be great racers. She has two mares about to give birth, both sired by a famously fast horse. A coin toss sends the more obviously potentially gifted horse to Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) but Penny is happy with the colt she’s left with, particularly when it surprises her, her new trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) by getting up and on its feet seconds after being born. Much to the dismay of her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh), who wants her to stay in Colorado and be a full-time wife and mother, Penny sees the horse — who she calls Big Red but who is officially called Secretariat — as her chance to live her dreams.
So, that you’ve heard of this horse at all suggests how all of this pans out for Penny, “this” in particular being her attempt to race Secretariat for the Triple Crown, that rare victory at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Not only is the outcome unsurprising, even if this hadn’t been a story about a real-life horse and crew, you could guess exactly how things would turn out. This movie makes Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man look like complex tales filled with layered characters. Secretariat is full of pat characters — the doubters (Penny’s husband and brother), the stalwart supporter (a family friend played by Margo Martindale), the person in need of redemption (the temperamental trainer Lucien) and the requisite minority character with special abilities (Eddie Sweat). The movie couldn’t quite wring a Depression-era “people need a reason to hope” theme out of this, but since it was the early 1970s, we get a bit about the story of Secretariat bringing the generations together. Or, more specifically, bringing together men in bad suits and horn-rimmed glasses and kids dressed like extras from their high school’s production of Hair. The score soars, people speechify about dreams — there is hokey and then there is dripping-in-corn-syrup-and-covered-with-believe-in-yourself-sprinkles and then there is this.
For a movie about races run more than 30 years ago, Secretariat does somehow manage to make the horse racing segments interesting and even suspenseful. You see a clip of horse racing on your general newscast and you mostly see horses the size of plastic army men circling the track. Secretariat, given the ability to film a race from a zillion different angles, gives us hooves in the dirt, the jockey’s-eye view, the horse’s-eye view, close up, far away — enough different shots that one of them is going to grab you.
Unfortunately, the movie is probably 15 percent actual horse races and 85 percent speech-making and cliché-delivering. Secretariat isn’t a bad movie — for your children who like horses and have the patience to sit still for two hours, it’s no more sappy than other movies with horse and horse-like protagonists I’ve seen in recent years — but it doesn’t stretch to do anything more than give us a famous horse and his one-note collection of humans.
Rated PG for brief mild language. Directed by Randall Wallace and written by Mike Rich (from a book by William Nack), Secretariat is an hour and 56 minutes long and distributed by Walt Disney Studios. It opens in wide release on Friday, Oct. 8.