But still, I like Horseracing. In spite of the fact that I clearly don't know all that much about it. Then again, I'm no expert on Hockey either and I really loved Miracle! Like Miracle, Disney's Secretariat is the kind of sports movie that makes you want to stand up and cheer right there in the theatre. And in the case of Secretariat, quite a few times people actually did.
The beauty about Secretariat is the way that the film inspires total suspension of disbelief. The races are a matter of public record and I even did my share of research before watching this film. We know this is a Disney "Feel Good Movie" and it probably wouldn't have been made with a downer ending. Still, I wasn't alone in the theatre when I found myself mouthing the words "Come on, Come on, Come on, YES!" each time Secretariat, the unlikely champion, came from behind and raced the great race. It's that kind of sports movie... the challenges are real and the audience roots for the Red Horse in the running!
Naturally, this is a credit to director Randall Wallace, without whom this could be just another Biopic with a Sporting backdrop. Naturally, the credit should also go to Mike Rich's screenplay which, in turn, was based on (or suggested by) William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. And then there's the requisite triumphant music from Nick Glennie-Smith and the beautiful cinematography of Dean Semler! All of these put together make for a very fine film!
Most of all, Secretariat is a winner of a film due to its universally excellent cast. Diane Lane brings us Penny Chenery Tweedy, the educated housewife whose life is changed considerably upon the death of her mother. Penny and her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and their kids race back to the family Horse Farm in Virginia to comfort her slowly fading father Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn) and to help get the farm's affairs in order with the help of her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) and her father's secretary Miss Hamm (Margo Martindale).
Conventional wisdom (especially that of the conventionally wise Hollis and Jack) points to the farm having to go and the Horses needing to be sold. However, Penny is most assuredly not one of those "well-behaved" women who rarely make history. Instead, she's one of those well-behaved and assertive people who is up for a challenge as gargantuan as this one! She wants to save the farm and keep her dad's dream alive without liquidating the assets or selling all of the horses. In fact, she has her high hopes set on one of the foals that is set to be born on the farm. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that this foal is the best bet she could have made... and he makes history enough to have had a 2010 Disney film named after him.
Of course to make sure she gets the Horse she wants, she has to deal closely with her father's associates Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) and Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson)! To help the as-yet-unborn colt into a champion, of course, she's going to need a trainer and a jockey! Enter the "trying to retire" Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a cursing French Canadian with the wardrobe of Mr. Furley and the race-hardened Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), with an attitude bigger than he is and a relentless winning spirit to match Secretariat's!
While the movie is called Secretariat, and this is most certainly his story, this is equally, if not more, the story of the horse's owner Penny who shares a deep kinship with this surprisingly strong and fast horse. Their lives parallel and every time we see Secretariat (or "Big Red" as they called him) come from behind to win an unlikely victory, he helps to make the same things happen in Penny's life. However, Penny isn't one to just HOPE things will go her way. She assembles her team, takes gambles and puts up high stakes bigger than one would find at any track to help make her team a success and her horse a champion.
Luckily, while this is no Black Beauty-style first-person account, on the part of the horse, Randall Wallace gives enough of a glimpse into Secretariat's eyes, soul and mind to help us believe that he knows he's racing for a win himself and is far from "just some animal". The way his tender Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) silently communicates with him and the way that Penny connects with him shows that his legend was far more than just about his strength and speed.
Further, as the film progresses through race after race it's this case (including the Horses) that keeps us fascinated through each win (and loss). At the right times, Secretariat can be sad and touching just as much as it can be exciting, and funny. It's always dramatic and perfectly acted, but the many facets of this film shine through perfectly.
It's to the point that, just as we tend to cheer during the races, when we know in our minds these are reenactments, we remain engaged in this story even when we know that large pieces have been skipped over and entire chapters (which are also of historical record) are not to be found here. While this may be Equestrian Historical Fiction, it's more real than not... and even if this was a completely made-up plot (which it isn't) the way this is executed is so well-done and entertaining that it really doesn't matter. This is simply a very fine film from a director who has put his all into it. Bravo.
The class of the cast goes well beyond the leads. It's obvious to point out that Diane Lane and John Malkovich are great thespians and they do fantastic work here. The same is true for the supporting James Cromwell and the always excellent Scott Glenn. Keep watching the cast and many a surprise may arise.
Nelsan Ellis is incredible as Eddie Sweat, bringing a quiet emotion with pride and awe to his every frame. Ellis is, however, such a fine actor that he never "steals the show". He brings his best to his part at the right times and never attempts to outshine the rest of the cast.
Similarly, Margo Martindale feels like an old friend by the film's halfway point. She portrays thought and emotion before she ever opens her mouth and we get to know her well enough to feel what she's thinking without words. She brings an excellent fullness to the character of Elizabeth Ham without ever once overacting or becoming a... dare I say it... a Ham.
Other standouts include Drew Roy as the Bull's son Seth Hancock, Amanda Michalka and Carissa Capobianco as two of the fast-growing Tweedy children and Nestor Serrano as the chauvinistic owner of Secretariat's rival Sham.
And, though we root for Secretariat, we see clearly that Sham is no sham, nor are the other horses who were great enough to even make it to the three Derbies in the triple crown. You see, recording it all is reporter Bill Nack himself as brought to us by Kevin Connolly along with fellow awed reporter buddy Eric Lange, who brings us Andy Beyer. There may be some moments that aren't straight from reality but these touches sure make it feel real!
Secretariat is a very good film with an excellent cast and a fantastic feeling to it that helps transcend the occasional seams and flaws (minor and few though they may be). There are breakout performances and moments of great thrill and humor... not to mention a few times that the audience may actually cry out of either sorrow or joy, often within a few seconds time. All the while, this is never a sappy or trite film, nor is it lightweight or corny as these "Feel Good Movies" tend to be. Secretariat is a real winner worthy of Four and one half Stars out of Five! Yes, folks, at last the horse I bet on really did come in first. If you like Sports Movies, well-acted dramas and redeeming films that leave you with a smile and a good feeling, this one is a safe wager. It's not perfect, but it most certainly works its magic in all the right ways and never comes off as calculated or formulaic. And that says a lot! Now, if you don't mind... I've got some racing pamphlets to print out. They won't win you any money if you follow what I say and they may not be as accurate as my review website but at least you won't have to look at my simplistic HTML pages when you collect your trifecta winnings. See you in the next reel, you winner you!
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