Get a great story and run with it
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 8, 2010
It's tough to guess who will enjoy "Secretariat" more -- filmgoers who remember the extraordinary events of 1973, when the chestnut 3-year-old won the first Triple Crown in 25 years, or those for whom the story is brand-new. With this stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie, director Randall Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart") has achieved the next to impossible, injecting genuine tension and suspense into a narrative we all know the ending to.
Wallace's secret is that he makes "Secretariat" about characters, not races, and he has found irresistible protagonists in both his equine and human subjects. Coming from behind with a heart as big as a house is Secretariat, known to his owners and intimates as Big Red, who at first is so slow "he couldn't beat a fat man encased in cement being dragged backwards by a freight train," according to his trainer (played with quirky, crusty gusto by John Malkovich). But his owner believes in him: Penny Chenery Tweedy, a Denver homemaker who inherits her father's Virginia horse farm and battles the sexist forces of her own family and the horse racing establishment to champion Big Red and change the face of the sport forever.
One of the best things "Secretariat" has going for it is that Tweedy is played by Diane Lane, who brings her signature, ineffable blend of radiance, toughness and demure reserve to a woman who knows how to wear just the bright brooch when upending the patriarchy. It's a testament to Big Red's mythical force that he's portrayed by five horses in the movie of his life -- including one charismatic steed that, like Secretariat himself, plays to the camera so cannily you could almost swear he winks.
Juxtaposing Tweedy's you-must-pay-the-rent travails and her conservative husband's complaints with Big Red's journey to becoming a superstar, Wallace turns "Secretariat" into a parable of faith and quiet, assured feminism. If some of the back-home scenes are awkwardly staged (especially Tweedy's teenage daughter who rebels against her parents' politics in a parody of liberal agitprop) and the plot contoured for Hollywood efficiency, the story itself is too infectious to resist.
Filmed with breathtaking immediacy, the racing sequences are utterly heart-stopping, with each hoofbeat and clod of dirt seeming to leap off the screen, especially during Secretariat's astonishing run in the Belmont Stakes. (Fans will appreciate Wallace's decision to show much of the Preakness on a television monitor, reproducing how most of us remember the event.)
But at its core, "Secretariat" is the story of a girl and her horse, that mystical bond between human and animal that, by quoting the Book of Job to open and close the movie, Wallace suggests is almost spiritual. When Big Red snorts as Tweedy approaches his stall, it's a moment of transcendent recognition. And in its own way it's more thrilling that those legendary runs themselves.
Contains brief mild profanity.