Diane Lane is near oscar worthy in her presentation of Penny Chenery, mother of four, and a housewife to an attorney. They reside in Colorado, and as the story begins, Penny has to rush back to the familial homestead in Virginia upon the death of her mother. When she arrives she finds the farm in decline and disrepair due mainly from her father being in the throes of Altzheimers. Fortunately, in a lucid moment, Dad bred two of his mares to a famous stallion (Bold Ruler). The story is not only of how Penny saves the farm, risking quite a lot (including the ire of her brother for not selling), but her belief in the horse she calls Big Red.
There's plenty scenes of bonding and horse sense, letting you know how noble these beasts are, and how smart and intuitive Big Red is. This is a bit over the top, as is the perhaps too constant reminders of a woman standing up to the status quo in what was at the time a man's sport and a man's world. Regardless, it makes for a good story, playing up the "us against them" aspect as well as the perhaps silent bond between horse and those closest to it. In fact, by showing us some "human" aspects of the legendary horse - his love for the limelight, etc. - the film draws you in and makes you seriously root for Secretariat.
There's plenty of drama in the well shot racing scenes and, even if you know the ending of the races, somehow there's still drama and you're on the edge of your seat yelling "go Big Red". Perhaps it's because I'm old enough to remember those races and being totally in awe of what has to be the greatest performance by a horse ever (the Belmont Stakes). I still get chills recalling the Sport's Illustrated cover of that magnificent, sturdy beast pounding the track into submission with the simple title "super".
But the film is not just about those iconic races and all the drama surrounding them. There's the human tale of how Penny chose her trainer and jockey. In yet another quirky, yet oddly effective performance, John Malkovich shines as the French Canadian trainer, frequently muttering in French. Then there is the joy of seeing the always wonderful Margo Martindale - just so natural in every role she plays. I found it interesting to see both Margo and ex congressman Fred Thompson in the same film; recalling the wonderful romance they portrayed over several episodes of the Sidney Lumet TV show 100 Centre St which aired several years ago. Both actors so fully able to just "be".
There's a wonderfully filmed sequence that aptly sums up the allure of this film. As the Belmont is being run and fans and critics alike utter that there's no way any horse can sustain such a torrid pace, the film backs off and shows the empty far turn with the white shiny rail on the right hand side. A voice over narration repeats a bit of poetry from the film's beginning; talking about how a warrior will always answer the call of the bugle - and then here comes Big Red around the turn, all by himself, thundering down the straight away and into history.
This is a Disney film through and through. Nobody curses, unless you consider "butt" and "shucks" curse words. Everybody smiles a lot. The horse is anthropomorphized. But more damning to the film is few social taboos are challenged. Yes, the theme of a "woman's place" is discussed in the film but not with any serious conviction. There's even this saccharine line in reference to one character's war protests: "Our political convictions may change, but our belief in ourselves won't" (quoted from memory, not verbatim). Talk about avoiding controversy! What upsets me most about Disney, as a company and as a marketeer of culture, is the fact that it makes films that are for "everyone," but they end up being for no one in particular.
I also wondered about why all of Eddie's "cheering shots" only included him. Is he in the "black section" of the racetrack? Is he in the "person who leads the horse to the starting gate" section? This open question means that film has also deliberately ignored the racial realities of the time, too.
Diane Lane is sweet and beautiful. The horse looks like a pretty horse. John Malkovich is occasionally funny.
Overall, the film is well-made, but it's only for those who aren't annoyed by white-washed reality.
I liked the cast, particularly Diane Lane and John Malkovich...Lane's performance isn't Oscar worthy or anything, but she's such a stunning actress. She carries the film; she's wonderful as the lead character. John Malkovich also gives a good performance. I really liked him as the trainer, Lucien.
Disney was wise to cast two key roles to great actors, it gives the film alot of worthy credibility.
I recommend this film. Seabiscuit is probably a better example of a great horse-racing movie, but Secretariat is highly enjoyable and entertaining.
A stellar ensemble cast, with the racing action, emotion and energy captured and portrayed brilliantly on screen by Randall Wallace's direction.
Housewife and mother Penny Chenery agrees to take over her ailing father's Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing knowledge. Against all odds, Chenery -- with the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin -- manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years.
Even so, I will say there are some very cool aspects of this movie that I enjoyed a great deal. I went in with hardly any knowledge of horse racing history. I'll watch the Kentucky Derby on TV from time to time, and I have heard the name "Secretariat" floated around every year, yet I had no idea the extensive story behind it all. This movie captures that part really well, and tells an excellent story.
Another plus, John Malkovich. He really steals every scene he's in. He's pretty hilarious at points.
I really thought the action shots of the horse races were also very well done. They are really exciting even though you know the outcome of the big three races...Very interesting techniques used to capture the intensity of each event.
Lastly, there's one scene in the final race that I won't totally spoil here that was so unbelievably cool to me, that I'll probably buy the blu-ray to see it again & again...It involves music and a very cool establishing shot.
My main gripes are these: 1) at times, the movie is pretty slow. There's a pretty extensive setup period at the beginning of the movie. 2) They totally disregard the second race and leave you to watch as the family watches their TV screen at home. I thought it was just very odd to do it that way after seeing how well they captured the other races. Couldn't they at least have cut from the house to the actual race?
All-in-all, I enjoy aspects of this one, but unless you're a big-time horse racing fan, I can't really recommend it for more than a rental. It's good....but NOT great.
"Secretariat" may be hokum but it is well-executed hokum, especially in its racing sequences which are shown in real time. A very good cast also including Dylan Baker, James Cromwell and Margo Martindale helps. What definitely works in the movie is a deliberate pace that while admitting that Secretariat was not an underdog, shows that his path to glory was never a fait accompli, adding details like some interesting information on horse breeding. Granted, there are times when this does feel like a 1970's Disney movie, especially in trying to be topical by including kooky Vietnam War protesters but the Vietnam War was pretty much over by 1972. But referencing Chile is a nice touch. Thankfully, the movie does not lay it on thick about the horse possibly being a unifying factor because let's face it, the only religious thoughts concerning Secretariat were coming from OTB's.