California Literary Review

Movie Review: Secretariat

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October 8th, 2010 at 4:26 pm

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Movie Poster: Secretariat

Secretariat

Directed by Randall Wallace
Screenplay by Mike Rich

Diane Lane as Penny Chenery
John Malkovich as Lucien Laurin
Scott Glenn as Ogden Phipps
James Cromwell as Ogden Phipps
Dylan Walsh as Jack Tweedy
Fred Dalton Thompson as Bull Hancock
Kevin Connolly as Bill Nack
Nestor Serrano as Pancho Martin
Amanda Michalka as Kate Tweedy
Carissa Capobianco as Sarah Tweedy

CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

Movie Still: Secretariat

Diane Lane and John Malkovich star in Secretariat


‘Secretariat’ crosses the finish line
without ever quite hitting its stride.

I’ve been struggling for a while now to come up with the best way to describe Secretariat, the new film from writer/director Randall Wallace and Walt Disney Studios (particularly Walt Disney Studios). For a while there I was willing to settle on “Safe,” but that hardly does the movie justice. “Aggressively Safe” is more like it. Secretariat is the based-on-a true story of the greatest race horse who ever lived (not that I’m an expert on such things), and it’s an uplifting tale of good triumphing over… well, not evil. That wouldn’t be very safe, would it? No, good simply triumphs, and for the makers of this movie that appears to be enough.

Despite the title, Secretariat isn’t so much the story of the horse (of course), but rather that horse’s owner, Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane. Penny’s a suburban housewife with a gaggle of kids and a decent but bland accountant of a husband who has to take over the family horse-breeding operation when her mother dies. Her very-much alive father (Scott Glenn) would do it, but he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s up to Penny to save the farm. Penny gets herself an eccentric horse trainer played by John Malkovich, a sassy secretary played by the always-great Margo Martindale, and a prize race horse named “Big Red,” who due to an archaic rule set is eventually given the stage name “Secretariat.” Will Secretariat save the farm by becoming a Triple Crown Winner? More importantly, will Penny be able to juggle being a stay-at-home Mom with being a successful business owner? It’s a Disney film so you can probably guess the answers already.

For a movie about the prize-winningest horse in history there doesn’t seem to be a lot at stake in Secretariat. Sure, there’s a bit of a struggle, but the “Can Do” spirit of the protagonists is never quite matched by a deserving foe. The farm is in trouble, but we never see how it negatively affects the people working on it. There aren’t any Capra-esque debt collectors who hang on the bell all day and make pointed comments about how flammable Penny’s stable looks. Secretariat doesn’t win every race he’s in but when he does lose it’s nothing more than bad luck. Penny’s primary competition gets to make jokes about how Penny is a woman (which she is), but he’s not so much evil as kind of a blowhard, and when his uppance finally comes the effect isn’t one of righteous retribution but rather one of, “Wow, that poor guy.” Any sense of proper competition or suspense derives from the races themselves, which are handsomely shot and appropriately rousing on their own merits, and also the ongoing suspense of how this housewife can possibly remain a housewife when she’s got such a time-consuming job, a thematic element which seems vaguely backward at best.

Secretariat feels like an intentional companion-piece to last year’s atrocious but highly successful The Blind Side, although with a lot less racism. Both films are about the healing power of sports, the importance of family, and a plucky homemaker protagonist played by a movie star gunning for an Oscar in what probably isn’t her natural hair color. Diane Lane is perfect in the lead role, which is not to say that the lead role is perfect for Diane Lane. It’s a straight-forward character, gutsy but occasionally guilty of self-doubt, and she gets to make a fair number of speeches about what’s right and wrong using clunky racing metaphors… and Lane nails it. But like The Blind Side the film itself is sappy, saccharine, sugary, and other synonyms as well. It’s so non-threatening and feel-good that one gets the impression that it would have made an even better Made-For-TV movie. Given the low stakes, talented but not exactly A-List cast and heartwarming true story it probably could have swept the Emmys, but as a marquee title it lacks the dramatic weight necessary to balance its uplifting nature.

But movies can do a lot worse than “harmless,” or even “aggressively harmless,” particularly when they’re intended for the whole family, as Secretariat most definitely is. It’s a cheery film, brought to life with pomp and circumstance by Randall Wallace in what is easily his best outing as a director. Everyone is good in it, and even the great John Malkovich turns in a fine “eccentric supporting character” performance without ever feeling like he’d rather be doing something more substantial. As family films go, Secretariat is one of the best bets of the year… but when viewed any other way it’s merely decent. Decent in spirit, decent in intentions, and above all decent in quality, but never truly exceptional. Ironically for a film about a first prize winner, Secretariat will just have to settle for platitudes about how it played the game.

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Secretariat Trailer

  • tommyflorida

    Safe review, I guess but one question: for SECRETARIAT to be considered “truly exceptional”, what would it take – drugs, gore, violence or homosexuality? Say it, we all know what it takes to be “truly exceptional” in modern pop culture. Sorry but true.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    What an unusual comment. I’m particularly concerned that you’re equating homosexuality with violence, but let’s put that aside and talk about the movie here. Since I don’t want to talk about Secretariat in great detail (it came out yesterday, so despite the fact that it’s based on a true story, giving away any spoilers seems unfair), let’s use another uplifting sports drama that actually WAS exceptional instead.

    For Secretariat to be truly exceptional it would need to have a sense of dramatic heft. Some manner of actual adversity would need to have been overcome, as opposed to mere inconvenience. For example: In Rocky, our hero (Rocky) is an underdog who gets to fight boxing champion Apollo Creed at the end of the film. Apollo Creed is an undefeated champion. In fact, nobody has ever even knocked him off of his feet in a boxing match before. Even ignoring the rest of the plot and all of the rich characterization, that’s a dramatic situation in which the odds are truly against our hero. Watching him struggle to overcome those odds is suspenseful, inspiring, and powerful stuff.

    Now imagine, if you will, the following: The same story, except Rocky has to fight Apollo Creed three times throughout the film. The first time Rocky barely loses, and that’s only because he sprained his ankle on the way to amphitheater. Every other fight in the film, Rocky kicks Apollo Creed’s butt six ways from Sunday. Apollo Creed is clearly an exceptional fighter, but compared to our hero is undeniably inferior in every way. In this scenario, the movie might still be well-characterized, acted, directed and so forth, but the suspense is gone. The awesome people will continue to be awesome, ‘The End.’ This version of ‘Rocky’ might be a decent film, but it wouldn’t be exceptional, it wouldn’t be regarded as a classic, and it wouldn’t be worth talking about today.

    Secretariat feels a lot like that second example, where everything is ‘nice,’ but not terribly dramatic. Part of this is because it’s based on a true story, so we know the ending and many of these events are set in stone, but the film could have instead worked overtime to emphasize the financial difficulties the family was having over the course of the film. These difficulties are present in the film, but not emphasized melodramatically enough to carry the plot from the beginning of the film to the end with any real gravitas. This diversity doesn’t have to be overcome, because aside from people occasionally pointing out that they need money, this kind of financial concerns don’t really affect the bulk of the film.

    For a film to be truly exceptional it would have to tell an exceptional story, not merely a likable one, and not merely a ‘true’ one. Secretariat may be about an exceptional horse, but it’s not an exceptional story… at least as told by these filmmakers here. I’m not sure why you believe that anyone would think Secretariat needs drugs, gore, violence or – and I still don’t see any kind of reasonable connection here – homosexuality to be a worthy piece of filmmaking. (Not that there’s anything wrong with putting any of those things in a movie.) All it really needs is a bit of actual drama.

  • Anne

    I’m looking forward to this movie….I’ll take unexceptional
    if that means no one blows up and there’s isn’t blood everywhere … then unexceptional sounds pretty good to me…just as a novelty…what no wall to wall vampires? okay, I’m in.

  • Reggie

    If this movie was an airline passenger it would never see a boarding pass.

    It’s a colossal bomb.

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