Movie Review: Secretariat
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
"Secretariat" opens with the voice of God talking to Job about a fearless war-horse. It's powerful Old Testament poetry. Who knew the Almighty was a racing fan?
The Sport of Kings is a mixed feedbag. And so is Disney's feel-good family film about the racehorse a sportswriter said "had muscles in his eyebrows." But "Secretariat" is more about owner/breeder Helen Bates "Penny" Chenery than the racing legend.
In 1969, the housewife with a Smith College degree and business training left her four kids and husband of 18 years to save The Meadow, her father's 2,798-acre, money-losing horse farm in Virginia.
Chenery (Diane Lane) isn't welcome in the boys club that is high-stakes racing. And in a deja vu of Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa," she barges into their men-only club seeking horse-savvy Bull Hancock (Fred Dalton Thompson, back after playing a Tennessee senator for eight years in D.C.).
Directed by Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers"), "Secretariat" is both a sniff of the roses and a torn-up pari-mutuel ticket. The adrenaline rush of the racing scenes overrides the Disney succotash and ham.
In an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, Chenery said screenwriter Mike Rich ("The Rookie") told her the script was "a little sappy." He wasn't kidding.
Wallace, who wrote "Braveheart," likes to say he doesn't "let the facts get in the way of the truth." Fans of Secretariat, the only animal on ESPN's list of the 20th century's top 100 athletes, won't love the liberties Wallace takes, but audiences not steeped in track lore will cheer.
You can watch Secretariat run the Triple Crown races on YouTube and still get goose-bumps. But these racing scenes, artfully lensed by Oscar-winning Dean Semler ("Dances with Wolves"), put you in the stands.
Diane Lane, the face of Neutrogena, can act. Remember her post-coital ecstasy in "Unfaithful" or her tiny smile as Robert Duvall cuts the cards with her for a poke in "Lonesome Dove"? She has explosive scenes, but we never quite feel the grit we see in the face of the real Chenery, now 88, in the credits.
Always fun to watch in a kind of vulpine way, John Malkovich took the role of Secretariat's trainer because he grew up going to the tracks with a gambling grandpa. He's endearing here as fiery, funny French-Canadian Lucien Laurin, who "dresses like Superfly" and pushes the colt that loves to run.
Four Thoroughbreds and a quarterhorse play Secretariat. Those that didn't have three white socks and a blaze got a paint job. Retired professional jockey Otto Thorwarth is Ron Turcotte, who rode Big Red into the record books, and he adds a touch of authenticity in the blue-and-white silks.
Only Churchill Downs plays itself among Louisville and Lexington, Ky., and Lafayette, La., locations. Characters speak in aphorisms ("Great colts come from great sires"), gospel music swells at wins and some of the biz's best supporting actors barely get out of the gate.
Always reliable Scott Glenn has little to do as Penny's businessman-horse breeder dad, whose mind is in the shadows. Chris Chenery mutters a line or two, then dies, leaving a mountain of debt. That's where the little miracle, born March 30, 1970, at the Meadow Stud, comes in.
Dylan Walsh ("Nip/Tuck") is Penny's miffed hubby; AJ Michalka ("The Lovely Bones"), her activist daughter and SMU alum Dylan Baker, her skeptical brother. As the farm secretary, Margo Martindale is as warm and maternal as she was cold and mean in "Million Dollar Baby."
Kevin Connolly (HBO's "Entourage") is sportswriter Bill Nack, whose book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," inspired the film. And James Cromwell, Farmer Hoggett in "Babe" and a big hit at the 2008 Austin Film Festival, is financier-horse breeder Ogden Phipps, who wins a famous coin toss but loses a fabled foal.
Only what's animal rights activist Cromwell doing in a horseracing film? He's a visible supporter of PETA, which takes a dim view of the sport for its drug use, hard tracks, whips and running horses younger than three years.
But give the filmmakers credit. We rarely see Secretariat without Nelsan Ellis (HBO's "True Blood") playing groom Eddie "Shorty" Sweat, and that's how it was in real life.
Called by many "a prince" and the best in the business, Sweat brushed, rubbed, fed, traveled and slept by the horse on the road. No one knew the champion better or loved him more. Lawrence Scanlon's book "The Horse God Built" salutes their touching relationship. Maybe somebody will make that story someday.