Playing a bright-eyed housewife turned horse-breeding entrepreneur with a perfectly maintained southern coif of blond hair, Diane Lane ducks her head into the backseat of a characteristically bulky classic car. It’s the 1970s and a mother is wishing her four picture perfect children goodbye as her picture perfect husband drives off waving good-heartedly out the window. “Be good!” she cries after them. Cut to the stables, where Lane bites back tears amid the dust filtered, golden haze of a late Kentucky afternoon – a cinematic world in which tears do not mar one’s makeup, they glisten flatteringly as you sit – nay pose – angled just so, your sympathetic profile gleaming with grace, never sorrow.
As spectacularly elegant as it is blindingly hopeful, this tribute to whitewashed American history excels in both its ability to bring tears of victorious exultation to our eyes and in its well-intentioned – but painfully misleading – reimagining of our diversity-challenged past. Secretariat brings to the silver screen a tale of the underdog who nobody believed in, as so many Middle America-pleasing Disney films do, except in this case it’s not some washed up old baseball player, nor is it a suspiciously zit-free teen; it’s about an enterprising ex-homemaker, played by Diane Lane, and her one-of-a-kind horse, Big Red. And though this dried up prune of a plot would usually have me yawning in mere anticipation, I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself powerfully swept up in the unexpected excitement of equestrian sport (who knew!).
Though it may sound backward, this expertly crafted film finds success in its lack of ambition. Admittedly a rather unoriginal script, borderline copy-and-paste in fact, Secretariat does not attempt to push the boundaries of nor redefine a genre, it does not challenge our preconceptions nor our conventions, it does not even pretend to do so – what it does do, with director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, Man in the Iron Mask) at the helm, is breathe, not merely life but gusto, into what would otherwise be so tried and true as to be dead and gone – a remarkable accomplishment given just how exhausted this once-moneymaking genre has become.
Secretariat is an exercise in cultivation, in refinement, in polishing what has become lackluster into something bright and shiny once more – not unlike otherwise worthless old boots all-shined up and labeled vintage. An attention to detail defines the crafting of this film and helps distract us from the clichés. The cinematography, for example: taking full advantage of the bucolic scenery offered up by Kentucky and Louisiana, the art direction and shot composition of most every shot is attended to with a perfectionist’s neurosis: an opulence of lines, usually established by crisscrossing white picket fences, brings a by-the-book dynamism to exterior shots that in its perfection threatens to pass from brilliant to nauseating, and the attention paid to color coding costuming and the set is likewise an achievement in fabricating an unsettlingly convincing unreality of eye-pleasing visual contrasts and complements.
Speaking of, complements to the cast for their ability to deliver even the most stilted and cheesiest of lines with not only a straight face, but also something akin to believability. It may be that I was entranced by the hypnotic, golden lambency that surrounded Lane’s blond hairdo like a halo for the better part of the film, but when she declared, “This isn’t about going back; this is about life being ahead of you, and you run at it, because you never know how far you can go unless you run!” I nearly jumped up and began sprinting down the street myself. Not really, of course. But I was certainly impressed. And joining her is the always eccentric and ever talented John Malkovich, who plays a flamboyantly dressed horse trainer lured out of retirement by the promise of an amazing horse and long-sought after success; he manages to make a snobby and somewhat disgruntled character both lovable and entertaining.
Beyond the cookie cutter script, my only other complaint would be a lack of historical accuracy that borders on problematic. Set in the early ’70s – a time of cultural divide and political vitriol, the era of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement – the world of Secretariat is uncomfortably devoid of tension. Despite featuring ample juicy and potentially issue-sensitive content, the central conflict is that of whether a horse that comes from a family of losers has what it takes to win. Rather than exploring the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world (as Lane’s character would ostensibly face), or whether Malkovich’s character’s troubled past has anything to do with his more than likely (though never actually stated) in-the-closet status, the film depicts a world free of prejudice. Minority characters, like Nelsan Ellis, an African-American groom with a kinship for animals and penchant for song and dance that smacks of racial stereotype, play supporting roles and little else to the white leads, the plot conveniently skirting around issues of racial tension that pervaded the era.
Luckily, there are a number of features included in the DVD/Blue Ray combo that help to mitigate the problem. In an interview with the “Real Penny Chenery,” Wallace teases out a more in depth reflection of Chenery’s experience working in a male-dominated sport. Also included is an audio commentary led by Wallace, who does his best to spell out his interpretation of the film, i.e. a great heart leads to great success; several deleted scenes that also have the commentary option; a fascinating multi-angle simulation of the original race; and two documentaries for those hungry to learn more about horse racing and Big Red, one that describes the difficulties and dangers of choreographing horse races, and a second, a feature length piece, that explores Big Red’s story in more detail.