Review: Secretariat and long-shot owner make Disneyfied history
October 7, 2010
Just how much you enjoy “Secretariat,” Disney’s glossy-coated biopic of the celebrated racehorse, depends in large part on how much you know of his career. If you know zilch, you’ll be thrilled.
If you know slightly more than zilch, you’ll be a little less thrilled. If you know the pertinent details, and I’m thinking of certain race results from 1973, you may regard the film as a pleasant two hours spent with two magnificent creatures. The horse is gorgeous; Diane Lane is gorgeous; they spend a lot of time staring into each other’s eyes, backlit by perpetual sunsets. The whole film is golden, from her helmet of blonde hair to the halo of light embracing (almost) every shot.
I’ll be writing this review spoiler-free for the folks who know zilch. I had assumed such viewers did not exist until, on a whim, I performed an unscientific survey of people exiting the theater at a promotional screening. Two-thirds of them knew nothing of Secretariat’s legacy going into the film. I am envious. Without the element of surprise, this sparkling bauble of American sports nostalgia adds up to pretty pictures, thundering hooves, gauzy setpieces – and not a whole lot else. It’s a handsome, static portrait of a legendary thoroughbred and the luminous woman who owned and loved him.
“Secretariat” was directed by Randall Wallace, who last sat in the director’s chair for 2002’s “We Were Soldiers,” and written by Mike Rich, who brought a reverent-but-dull sheen to 2006’s “The Nativity Story.” It’s Secretariat who gets canonized this time, first with opening biblical quotations (Job 39), then with a plot that assigns almost mystical superpowers to a singularly driven animal.
His female co-star is Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the housewife and mother of four who overcame ingrained old-boy sexism in taking the reins of her father’s horse farm. Tweedy’s ownership of Secretariat – or “Big Red,” as she calls him – is as much the subject of the movie as Secretariat himself, jazzing up social tensions and layers of family strife. (Her husband, portrayed by a staunchly uninteresting Dylan Walsh, frets over Penny’s independence and their daughters’ emerging hippie-dom.) Other humans in the cast include John Malkovich, encased in heinous plaids as eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin, and Dylan Baker as Penny’s patronizing, pushy, tax-obsessed brother. They all play their roles on this stately trot through history.
Movies with foregone conclusions aren’t that rare, of course, and they work just fine when their screenplays build suspense from fictitious elements. The “Titanic” sinks, sure, but what about Jack and Rose? In “Secretariat, the fictionalized bits are simple exaggerations – broad, Disneyish adjustments in races and other realities. So a rival horse wins an event he didn’t. A rival trainer is made out to be a sneering villain (smack that grin off his face!). Secretariat’s gentle African-American groom is given just enough screen time, with just enough purehearted dialogue, to establish him as the Designated Spiritual Black Man so often found in films about rich white people.
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And Malkovich? He’s the clown. He gets to make off-color cracks about monkey butts while Lane, never more earnest or airy, issues lofty bromides about racing as a metaphor for life. “You never know how far you can go unless you run,” she says, and I totally agree. Or I would, if I hadn’t known so much about her horse.