As screenwriter Mike Rich was interviewing Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, to write a screenplay for the new film about her legendary Thoroughbred, he reportedly told her, "This is isn't a documentary. It's a Disney movie." And he was right.
Like almost any movie "based on a true story," Secretariat uses history as a mere jumping-off point for its version. But the real Disney-esque aspects of the film — manipulative, cheesy, implausible moments that strike the wrong chords — are what keep Secretariat from being a movie worthy of its legendary subject.
It's not a bad movie, although it sometimes treads close to that. On the good side, we get to go behind the scenes of one of the greatest stories in sports history with interesting characters, and the film is beautifully photographed, mostly in Kentucky. It also manages to create a fair amount of suspense in a story whose conclusion almost everyone interested enough to buy a ticket already knows.
But Secretariat ultimately fails to convey the grandeur of its title subject.
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Secretariat's career was the stuff of sporting legend: one of only two horses to finish the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, achieving the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years, gracing the covers of international publications that usually reserve their fronts for heads of state.
Secretariat's story has long been seen as ripe for the big screen, so it's a shame the result wasn't something more akin to Seabiscuit, the 2003 film of Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller that earned an Oscar nomination for best picture — and, like Secretariat, was filmed at Keeneland and other locations in Central Kentucky. That was an honest movie that captured the grit and poetry of Thoroughbred racing.
By contrast, Secretariat usually defaults to safe and sweet scenes, such as Chenery and the Secretariat team dancing to 1970s soul music while grooming Big Red, or turning trainer Lucien Laurin into a foppish clown.
Some of the choices made here, such as using the gospel song Oh Happy Day during Secretariat's charge to his overwhelming Belmont win, are just plain weird.
Oh Happy Day? Terrific tune — uplifting, joyful. But the soundtrack for one of the most majestic victories in sports?
There's a reason movies use 100-piece-plus orchestras for big moments. Innovating and not defaulting to the obvious choice is great, if it works. But here, it doesn't. It diminishes the moment, and that is emblematic of most of the movie.
The film follows Chenery's story from the moment she receives a call at her home, telling her that her mother died, to that victorious moment at the Belmont.
With her mother gone and her father incapacitated, Chenery takes on management of the family's Meadow Stable, starting with firing a bullying manager who attempted to defraud her family. The tone is set for a movie about a woman following her instincts and innovating to win in a man's world.
Diane Lane masterfully navigates the role, making Chenery simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, sending a message that the stakes are high but she will fight to win. The performance is already drawing fair comparisons to Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning turn in last year's The Blind Side.
As Laurin, Malkovich fights through his 1970s clown suits to convey the trainer's gutsy training style and reportedly fretful nature.
Most impressive is real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth as Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte. This was hardly a role that just asked him to look the part. He had to do some real acting from his very first scene with Lane; I did not realize that this was a real jockey and not a promising young actor until after seeing the movie.
Looking great, as always, was Keeneland and Kentucky. The camera loves the Bluegrass, and a movie screen only amplifies that. The Belmont scenes are a veritable advertisement for Keeneland, but that is unfortunately another part of the movie's smallness. As beautiful as Keeneland is, it is not a Triple Crown venue, and after showing the Kentucky Derby staged at Churchill Downs — including a beautiful rendition of My Old Kentucky Home — the film makes the Belmont look small. (The 1973 Preakness is shown through a television in the Chenery family's home.)
Secretariat does really well with the themes of empowerment and tenacity. It even manages to make the horse and Chenery's Meadow Stable seem like an underdog by ignoring the fact that stablemate Riva Ridge won the Derby and the Belmont the previous year.
The theme that's missing is majesty. It is concocted too much from the sports-movie formula, which usually tells smaller stories than Secretariat's, and not enough from epic or literate ambitions.
Somebody needed to tell Rich and director Randall Wallace this wasn't Flicka or Dreamer. It's Secretariat.
Like The Blind Side and many other inspirational sports movies, Secretariat probably will be a hit, will easily make back its modest production budget and could even grab some Oscar nominations.
Unfortunately, it also will make Big Red seem smaller.