“Secretariat” is a horse tale like “Seabiscuit,” but the movie it better resembles is “The Rookie,” another sports-themed film from Disney about an underdog taking on the world. Despite the title, the subject is not the thoroughbred who won the 1973 Triple Crown and is widely considered the greatest racehorse ever, but his owner, Penny Chenery.
It’s a solid performance by Diane Lane in a movie that’s just a little bit too slick for its own good, where all the pieces fit together with premanufactured precision. Still, when that horse starts to run, we can’t help cheering for him, and for the willful woman who believed in Secretariat so much she bet the farm (literally) on him.
There’s a neat scene early on where Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), assesses the colt’s many faults — too fat, lays back in the gate, etc. — while recognizing that he’s got a winner on his hands. I could say the same about this movie.
Movie critics are much like horse traders in that way: You can check the teeth and press the horseflesh all you want, but you don’t really know what you’ve got until the animal runs his race.
On paper, “Secretariat” is riddled with problems, but the sum is much more than its wobbly parts.
The screenplay by Mike Rich (who also penned “The Rookie”) unspools with machine-like exactness, hitting story beats with predictable rhythm. When Secretariat loses a race right before the first leg of the Triple Crown, it’s the classic Darkest Before the Dawn moment.
Malkovich’s loopy Lucien dresses like a plaid pimp and mumbles a stream of advice and curses in French. He’s a standard-issue cinematic outsider, secretly yearning for mainstream success in the winner’s circle.
When Penny’s husband (Dylan Walsh) shows up every 20 minutes or so to lament all the time she’s spending away from their family, we know it’s only a matter of time before his big denouement where he tells her what an inspiration she is.
Director Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers”) lets his cast wander off into hagiographic pronunciations about how each of them is wonderful in their own way.
Consider this line from Penny, after she refuses to let her dad’s (Scott Glenn) noble-but-unsuccessful horse farm be sold off: “My father’s legacy isn’t money. It’s the will to win, and to live with it if you can’t.”
There’s a barely-concealed religiosity to the proceedings, what with all the talk about “lifting up,” and a gospel-heavy soundtrack. Loyal groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) even sanctifies the Kentucky Derby track before the race.
Secretariat’s nemesis was a brown stallion named Sham, but it’s hard for a horse to play the heavy. Ditto for Sham owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), who’s portrayed with such cartoonish boastfulness and male chauvinism — dismissing Penny as a “housewife” — that he doesn’t feel particularly threatening.
The real villain of the movie is estate taxes.
After the government demands $6 million after her father’s passing, Penny is pressured by her husband and brother (Dylan Baker) to sell Secretariat. Instead, she comes up with an innovative plan to franchise the horse’s breeding rights to a select group of investors, at a then-unheard of price of nearly $200 grand a pop (so to speak).
The catch: It was the ultimate pay-for-performance deal. If Secretariat failed to win any leg of the Triple Crown, the Chenery farm would have been liquidated.
This is where “Secretariat” really sparkles, as the story of a unique woman who was willing to bet all her chips and defy the establishment. The tale may have been executed in a cookie-cutter fashion, but this rousing yarn still breaks away.