© 2010 Ray Wong
Based on the true story of Penny Chenery, owner of the legendary racehorse which won the Triple Crown in 1973, Secretariat is a true family movie with an uplifting, if predictable (well, we pretty know what happened, didn't we?) story.
Penny (Diane Lane) is a housewife and mother of four. She returns to her family ranch when her mother dies, and her father is gravely ill with dementia. They risk losing the ranch if she doesn't turn things around. Against her brother and husband's wishes, she decides to keep the ranch when she realizes she may have a champion in a young colt named Red.
She convinces one of the toughest trainers in the business, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to get out of retirement. She also hires a hard-driving jockey named Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth). Now, if only she can convince her investors to believe in Red, now known as Secretariat by Penny's loyal secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale).
When Secretariat starts to win races, they get the attention they need, but it's still not enough. When Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), one of the richest men in the country, offers to buy Secretariat for $8 million, Penny turns him down and convinces him that the horse's value will double or even triple because it will win the Triple Crown, which hasn't been done in over 25 years. Can this young colt deliver and save Penny from losing everything?
Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe) is luminous as Penny Chenery, a smart, driven woman trapped in a housewife's body. She has the right charisma, softness and toughness to portray the character, and her performance is very good. However, I do think she is too statuesque, too movie-star looking; it's distracting. John Malkovich (Red) plays his trademarked cranky, weird, crazy dude but somehow he makes us believe he could be this brilliant trainer. Could another actor have done this role? Absolutely -- I can think of half a dozen right now -- but Makovich brings something unique to the character.
Lane and Malkovich are surrounded by seasoned veteran actors in supporting roles. Scott Glenn (W) is appropriately ill-looking as Penny's father. James Cromwell (Surrogates) is stately as Ogden Phipps. Fred Dalton Thompson (Ironmen) is gentle as Penny's mentor Bull Hancock. Dylan Walsh (The Stepfather) is aloof as Penny's not-always-supportive husband.
Penny's loyal help are played by Margo Martindale (Orphan) as the lovely and supportive secretary, Miss Ham; Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) as Secretariat's caretaker Mr. Sweat; and real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth is excellent and intense as Ron Turcotte.
Based on William Nack's nonfiction book, the screenplay is written by Mike Rich (The Rookie) in a familiar rags-to-riches, sentimental style. Yes, it's old-fashioned and predictable, and some of the "uplifting' moments are very much on the nose. Still, it's refreshing to see a family drama in the vein of Black Stallion with a positive message, as corny as it may be: "you don't know how far you can go until you start running." There is the requisite cheese in the dialogue, and the plot is rather predictable. I mean, how can we not know how this is going to turn out? Even Diane Lane looks picture-perfect to be on the cover of Newsweek. Still, you've got to give credit to Mr. Nack for resisting the urge to dial up the schmaltz factor and keeping things relatively simple.
The direction of Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) is by the book and fitting for this genre. There's nothing new, however. Wallace gives us exactly what we expect. The cinematography is well done. The production is well put together. And there are some exciting moments on the course. If we grade the direction on whether it does everything right for the genre, I'll give Mr. Wallace a B+.
For audiences who love a story about overcoming adversities and achieving glory, Secretariat is right on the mark. It's a family drama. It's a sports film. It's a personal journey story. It's a beautiful production. But with a PG rating and a familiar arc, it doesn't have enough edge or uniqueness to leave an impression (unlike, say, Friday Night Lights or even Seabiscuit).
Stars: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Dylan Walsh, Fred Dalton Thompson, Kevin Connolly, Nestor Serrano, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth
Director: Randall Wallace
Writers: Mike Rich (based on William Nack's book)
Distributor: Walt Disney
MPAA Rating: PG for brief mild language
Running Time: 116 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10