Friday, October 8, 2010
Movie review: Secretariat
If you're looking for a true inspirational horse movie, go rent Seabiscuit.
The vast majority of sports films ever made have revolved around one concept: the underdog. Audiences love to be inspired, and there's nothing quite as inspiring as a scrappy, overlooked, under-appreciated team or individual rising up from the depths to vanquish not only their opponents, but anyone who doubted them in the first place. There's a reason no one's ever made a movie about, say, the 1927 Yankees – it's hard to cheer for a frontrunner.
So it's curious that Secretariat was greenlit in the first place, except for the fact that Seabiscuit proved people will go to a movie about a horse. To be sure, the story of Secretariat, the racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1973, is remarkable, but for reasons that seem to be antithetical to an inspirational sports movie. Secretariat is universally considered to be the greatest horse that ever raced. He won each of the Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) in record time, and his Belmont victory was the most dominating win of all time in that type of race. But his story is widely known, even by non-horse racing fans, so making hay out of his feats would seem to be an exercise in futility.
Director Randall Wallace and writer Mike Rich attempt to get around this obstacle by making Secretariat's owner, Penny Tweedy née Chenery (Diane Lane) the underdog, not the horse himself. And it even works ... for a while. Penny, a mother of three and housewife in Denver, is put in the sudden position of running her family's Virginia horse farm after her mom dies (her dad, played by Scott Glenn, is unable to do so as he is afflicted with dementia). Rebuffing attempts by rival owners and her brother to sell, Penny instead sets about trying to keep the foundering farm afloat.
As shown, the rise of Secretariat (who was originally known as Big Red) would never have happened without all manner of good fortune, including a fortuitous coin flip and a multi-million dollar bet on Secretariat's future. Penny hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), an eccentric semi-retired trainer known for his French epithets and loud clothing (“Dresses like Superfly”), to handle Secretariat after firing the farm's original trainer, with obvious results.
The background on Penny and her role in Secretariat's success are interesting, but unfortunately they're just not very cinematic. It doesn't help that long stretches of time are glossed over, along with, one would imagine, events that don't fit neatly in the “Penny as underdog” story. Wallace and Rich also introduce a few side stories that never come to fruition, including the impact Penny's numerous trips between Denver and Virginia has on her family.
By the time it comes to actually run the races we all know about, everything about the film feels anticlimactic. Secretariat's wins, of course, are foregone conclusions, so much is made of a supposed rivalry between Secretariat and another horse, Sham. Whether it existed or not, the way it's presented in the film, with Sham's owner growing increasingly belligerent, smacks of desperation by the filmmakers to manufacture any kind of tension, no matter how trite.
After a two year break, it's nice to see Lane back on the screen again. She certainly makes Penny a force to be reckoned with, although she's a tad too earnest in the role, not giving the character any variation in tone. Malkovich is as kooky as the character he plays, which is probably the reason he was cast in the first place. James Cromwell, Fred Thompson, and Kevin Connolly pop up in supporting roles, but none of them make a huge impact.
Secretariat, told in the right way, could have been an amazing movie (for example, the fact that he had a heart that was twice as large as a normal horse's never makes its way into this film). But reduced into a generic, faux-inspirational Disney movie, it never lives up to its subject's greatness.