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Secretariat (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)



Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, AJ Michalka, Fred Dalton Thompson, Kevin Connolly, Nestor Serrano, Carissa Capobianco, Sean Michael Cunningham and Jacob Rhodes.

Screenplay by Mike Rich.

Directed by Randall Wallace.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 123 minutes. Rated PG.

When Secretariat won the triple crown of horse racing in 1973 – winning the Belmont Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and smashing horseracing records in the process – the horse became arguably the greatest racehorse ever. 

It’s just a bit of bad luck that the actual story of Secretariat is not quite as interesting as the story of Seabiscuit, a previous champion horse whose tale was made into a very similar – and frankly significantly richer – film bio just seven years ago. 

Therefore, the beautiful horse that was called Big Red by his owner and his rabid fans has done something with his biopic that he rarely did in his racing career. He came in second place. 

Secretariat is just fine as a movie, even often rather good. It’s not the horse’s fault that Seabiscuit was even more evocative, and its era was more intriguing. Seabiscuit was a symbol of hope during the Great Depression as compared to Secretariat’s reign in the inflationary early 70s.

However, perhaps the biggest problem with Secretariat the movie is that the horse appears to be a supporting character in his own story. 

Instead, Secretariat focuses on his owner, Penny Chenery, who appeared to be a nice, smart housewife of the 60s. Yes, I know it was the 70s, but she hadn’t moved into the new generation yet and neither had her family, though her oldest daughter did seem to want to be a hippie six years too late, but she mostly did it in a polite middle-class suburban way. 

Chenery didn’t actually buy the horse; she inherited him from her infirm rancher father (Scott Glenn) upon his death. Despite the protestations of her husband and brother (the Dylans – Walsh and Baker), Penny decided to try to rebuild the family horse-breeding business by throwing all her faith (and all of their money) into turning him into a great racehorse. 

The horse did have a great bloodline – his father was also a champion – therefore she ignored the fact that it would be monetarily and personally easier for her sell the animal. 

Secretariat was her lottery ticket. And a great ticket he turned out to be.

Of course, it was not quite the long shot that the film suggests. It was always pretty obvious that the horse was a great competitor – it was just a surprise how great he turned out to be. 

Penny put together a team – an eccentric French trainer (John Malkovich), a daredevil jockey (Otto Thorwarth) and a just slightly racially stereotypical groom (Nelsan Ellis). Together Penny and her father’s loyal assistant (the always reliably great Margo Martindale) set about rebuilding the family’s horseracing legacy. 

Of course, the fact that because of her immersion in creating a champion she has to move away from her family and put them all in huge financial straits before the big payoff appears to be of secondary importance. 

Penny Chenery literally did gamble everything – and she is damned lucky that she won. 

That said, the racing scenes are exciting – if a bit frenetically filmed – and Secretariat does end up working as a feel-good movie. 

I just wish that, like the horse it portrays, the movie tried giving it’s all rather than being content to comfortably trot into the finish line.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 25, 2011.


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