(by Dustin Putman
Based on the true story of a hasty-legged stud who rewrote the record books after becoming the first horse to consecutively win the Triple Crown of races—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes—"Secretariat," oddly enough, has little time to be bothered with the title character. Secretariat, nicknamed "Big Red," dutifully lurks in the background until it is time to compete, the people around him speaking about how much it all means to him as a way of reconciling their own personal reasons for wanting him to win so they can reap the glory. For housewife-turned-owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), she can use the triumph as a rallying cry for women's rights in the early 1970s while also stressing the importance of following one's dreams. In actuality, she plays next to no part in Secretariat's victories, lucking out over a coin toss and winning the better horse. Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) is called out of retirement to train him, though we never actually see said training. Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) is the ace jockey. Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) grooms him. And as for Penny, she stands around and manages everyone else while putting her family on the back burner. Penny is an admirable real-life figure in her own right, standing up against her naysayers at a time when sexism ran rampant and many men still believed a woman's place was in the kitchen, but let's not kid ourselves like the movie does about the minimal part she played in this sports achievement. Article continues below
When her mother passes away and her ailing father (Scott Glenn) can no longer care for their Virginia horse farm, Denver-based wife and mother Penny Chenery refuses to sell despite a mountain of debt and decides to take over the business. She ultimately lays down all her chips on Secretariat, bred from racehorse Somethingroyal, gathering together a team to help her get him into competitive form. She need not have worried, as Secretariat begins breaking speed records on his way to the 1973 Triple Crown. In dedicating herself to this enterprise, Penny must fend off narrow-minded media scrutiny and the lack of full support from a husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh), who is left to fend for himself and care for their four children while she is away from home.
Flavorlessly directed by Randall Wallace (2002's "We Were Soldiers"), "Secretariat" is a too-neat, too-tidy, domineeringly inspirational sports tale from the live-action Walt Disney sweatshop. Screenwriter Mike Rich (2002's "The Rookie") gets most of the facts right, but wallows in formulaic, distinctly unoriginal storytelling. Centering on owner Penny Chenery and tossing Secretariat into the glue factory bin, the film does not satisfactorily develop the relationship between man and animal, nor does it concern itself with the technical process of breeding and training a racehorse. With the exception of a few close-ups on his eyes, Secretariat is rendered soulless by the picture's makers. Because of this, it proves all the more insane that the film equates him to a Jesus Christ-like messiah, opening up with narration quoting the Book of Job and climaxing with the laughable use of gospel song "Oh, Happy Day!" during the final stretch of the Belmont Stakes competition.
Penny's home life is brought up, then forgotten for long stretches—a sign of how uneven either the script or editing is. Eldest daughter Kate (AJ Michalka) labels herself a hippie and is producing a school play about war protestors. The movie goes to great pains to set up a conflict when Penny can't get a flight home and misses the performance, but then nothing is done with this afterwards. There is also a conversation about Kate and Sarah (Carissa Capobianco) wanting to go to Chile for a study abroad program, but again, it's tossed aside immediately and never brought up again. Otherwise, Penny's children are on hand only to smile and cheer on cue and hug her when she succeeds. Penny's relationship with hubby Jack is sparkless, the two of them so disconnected from their roles as a married couple that one cannot buy the pairing for a second. More touching is the bond between Penny and her own father, slowly slipping away as he loses himself to dementia. It's too bad, then, that their dramatic centerpiece earns unintentional laughs when Penny tells her hospitalized father she hopes he gets to see Secretariat win his upcoming race, only to glance over and notice that he's already flatlined. It's one of the most inappropriately funny moments of the year.
Diane Lane (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe") is a warm, fiercely independent beacon of female empowerment as Penny Chenery. We know this not from deciphering the film's themes all on our own, but because the movie feels the need to spell every last one of its messages out. "You've taught our children what a real woman is," Jack tells Penny on the eve of the final race. Later, Penny talks to Secretariat—it's just about the only scene where she interacts with him for more than a passing second—and proclaims, "I realized something: I've already won." Following the win, free-to-be-you-and-me daughter Kate makes a point of saying to her mom, "I'm so, so proud of you." So, yeah, "Secretariat" isn't exactly what one would call subtle. As golf-averse horse trainer Lucien Laurin, John Malkovich (2010's "Jonah Hex") sticks lazily to his typical colorful, sarcastic persona. Though thankless—virtually nothing is learned about her throughout—Margo Martindale (2009's "Orphan") proves that she can brighten up any old, moldy movie as Miss Ham, dedicated assistant and confidante to Penny.
"Secretariat" winds down with the big trio of races, known as the Triple Crown. They are well-shot by cinematographer Dean Semler (2009's "2012"), but lacking in tension because of how obvious they are in their outcome. The final race at the Belmont Stakes is especially anticlimactic since Secretariat not only won, but blew his competitors out of the water (he beat them all by over thirty paces). As the cheers get louder and the soppy, feel-good instrumental score by Nick Glennie-Smith (2005's "A Sound of Thunder") swells, the viewer is expected to clap along like some trained seal. No dice. The emotional manipulation is just too strong to buy into it. There is a great story to be told about Secretariat, one that legitimately shows interest in the horse rather than his hangers-on. Sadly, this isn't that film.