At a pivotal point in Secretariat—Walt Disney’s latest addition to the inspirational, against-the-odds, athletic, feel-good movie genre—Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) comes face to face with the magnificent horse, looking into his eyes to ascertain if he has the strength to win horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 25 years. The camera zooms in, cutting back and forth between Penny and the horse who are both bathed in sunlight—the director seems to be asking which is a more majestic creature: the horse that plays Secretariat, or Diane Lane. Lane is indeed a stunning actress, one of Hollywood’s enduring greats. Unfortunately, the film fails to give her room to run.
Secretariat is overly formulaic, something that can result in great cinema when executed well. Remember the Titans, which is pretty much Secretariat in shoulder pads, was excellent. Lane is as exceptional as Denzel Washington in her ability to carry a film, so the base expectation for Secretariat is that one will leave the theater inspired and verklempt. Not so here.
The film is based on the true story of the Triple Crown winning horse but centers on its owner. Penny Tweedy is Denver housewife in 1969. She takes over her ailing father’s Virginia horse farm and, in an interesting twist, inherits the unborn Secretariat by losing a coin toss. The film portrays her as happy with the arrangement—she has studied her horses and believes that Secretariat will be a better racer, despite the superior ancestry of the other horse.
Of course, the film is part biopic, so we know that Penny was correct in her judgment. The remainder of the story follows her struggle to find footing in a male-dominated sport, her unlikely partnership with the eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the strain on her family life due to her absence from home, and the eventual success of Secretariat, known to those closest to him as Big Red.
The problem with Secretariat is not that it’s predictable, cheesy, or even a glossy version of events. Facts carry less weight in a film like this; one doesn’t care if Big Red really had a race-threatening abscess on his gum right before the Kentucky Derby (he did) or if his propensity to start at the back of the pack was added to the film for dramatic effect (it wasn’t). The film isn’t about the horse Secretariat. It’s about beating the odds. It’s about strength in the face of adversity. It’s about faith and loyalty. The horse is just the story propping up these ideals.
The problem with Secretariat is that it fails to develop a sense of these lofty ideals before gushing them onscreen. Of course Penny is tough as nails! She is just oddly passive in the two scenes obviously meant to demonstrate her tenacity. Of course achieving success comes with risk! It’s just that Penny’s husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) seems unperturbed by the fact that Penny refuses to sell Big Red knowing they owe six million in tax on her father’s estate. When Penny tells the impassioned but hard luck Lucien Laurin before the final race that Big Red couldn’t have a better trainer, we want to see tears well up in his eyes. Instead, Laurin tells Penny that Big Red couldn’t have a better owner. Yet Laurin isn’t pandering to Penny in the scene—the director here is pandering to the audience. Everyone is swell! The film is a giant pat on the back, but Secretariat fails to inspire, when inspiration is the only thing this kind of film has going for it. The characterizations lack honesty, which usually makes for a bad movie.
Secretariat has a few bright spots. When the dreaded abscess clears the morning of the Derby, Big Red’s groomer Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) stands on the track, alone at dawn, and shouts with sheer exhilaration to no one at all, “Big Red done ate his breakfast.” This brief burst of glee is one of the few honest moments of the film.
The camera work during the race scenes is particularly exciting as well. Viewers sense the thundering gallop of the horse while slow motion captures the dirt kicked up by the power of his hooves. When Big Red exits the final turn in the Belmont, the soundtrack goes silent; all we see is the image of the horse, head on, entering his last stretch to glory. The lack of any other horse in the picture gives the shot dramatic impact by reflecting just how spectacularly Secretariat won (to date no horse has finished the Belmont faster or by more lengths).
The brightest point of the film for me though was the laughter from the several small children in the theater. They cheered when Secretariat won the Derby. And during the climactic race, a girl and a boy on my row, neither more than six, crouched in their seats, pitched forward, eyes transfixed on the screen, looks of concern on their faces. Then, it hit me! They weren’t sure whether Big Red wins or not. And that’s precisely why Secretariat lacks the punch of Remember the Titans—its history is too well known, leaving the adults looking for lofty ideals, while the kids just want this horse to win.