Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movie Review: Secretariat

Secretariat ** ½
Directed by:
Randall Wallace.
Written By: Mike Rich inspired by the book by William Nack.
Starring: Diane Lane (Penny Chenery), John Malkovich (Lucien Laurin), Dylan Walsh (Jack Tweedy), Kevin Connolly (Bill Nack), Margo Martindale (Miss Ham), Nelsan Ellis (Eddie Sweat), Nestor Serrano (Pancho Martin), Amanda Michalka (Kate Tweedy), Dylan Baker (Hollis Chenery), Otto Thorwarth (Ron Turcotte), Scott Glenn (Mr. Chenery), James Cromwell (Ogden Phipps), Fred Dalton Thompson (Bull Hancock), Carissa Capobianco (Sarah Tweedy), Sean Michael Cunningham (Chris Tweedy).

Secretariat represents Disney’s annual foray into the inspiration sports drama. In recent years they have produced movies like Remember the Titans, Glory Road, The Rookie, Invincible and Miracle. The template for these movies is pretty much the same – find a true sports story that happened against all odds, and package it as a movie the whole family can enjoy. For the most part, these movies work – they don’t represent film at its finest, but they are well made, and for people like me who are suckers for inspirational sports movies, they get the job done. Secretariat is exactly the movie you expect it to be – so you probably already know whether or not you’ll like it – but to me it was just a little too cheesy. Yes, all of these movies are cheesy, but this one lays it on especially thick.

The story of Secretariat is well known. He is the last Triple Crown winner in horse racing – winning the three big races in 1974. Since then, many horses have been able to pull off the first two victories, but fail in the dreaded third race – the Belmont. It hadn’t been done in more than 20 years before Secretariat, and the reason remain the same – horses that were built to win the first two races, cannot compete and win the third. That Secretariat did it at all is remarkable, that he did it with the time he did, and margin of victory in that third race – is what makes him the greatest race horse in history.

This would be enough for an inspirational sports movie, but Secretariat has the good luck that the people behind Secretariat were also unlikely winners. Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) grew up on her dad’s horse farm, and loved everything about it. Now married, with a brood of kids and living in Denver, nowhere near the farm in Virginia, she has been away from it for a while. But when her mother dies, her father who is already pretty much lost to Alzheimer’s, she is forced to take over again. Everyone wants her to sell the farm, but she has a feeling about a horse that is yet to be born. This horse, of course, turns out to be Secretariat. Unsatisfied with her current trainer, she fires him and hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) a fiery, French Canadian trainer who as one person puts it “dresses like Superfly”. He has the same feeling about this horse because of his lineage. So together, they are determined to turn their horse into a champion. They get help along the way, from the ever loyal secretary (Margo Martindale) to the even more loyal stable hand Eddie (Nelsan Ellis), and have a great jockey as well. It isn’t long before the horse is paying dividends.

There are money problems, and family problems abound in the movie. Penny’s husband (Dylan Walsh) isn’t happy that his wife is running off to look after a horse, instead of staying home and raising her family. Their oldest daughter (Amanda Michalka) is adamantly against the Vietnam War, despite Walsh’s feeling that it’s all commie crap. And they need money – lots of money. Racing horses isn’t cheap.

All of this is handled fairly well by director Randall Wallace. I particularly loved the horse races themselves – which are visceral and physical beyond what I have seen in most other horse racing movies. He even manages to make the last race exciting – even though Secretariat won it by more than 30 lengths. The acting is universally solid, and in a few cases more. Diane Lane is determined, yet chipper, in the lead role. She knows that everyone views her as “just a housewife”, but she is determined to let that get to her, and it doesn’t. John Malkovich has a blast – and as a result so does the audience – every time he is on screen. It is a great comedic performance, with a little fire underneath it.

But there are also too many scenes filled with dialogue which is just overly cheesy – and these moments took me out of the movie completely. Dialogue that is too on the nose, or moments like when Diane Lane seems to commune with the horse to get him ready for a race, that just rung hollow. After all of these moments, it took a few minutes to get back into the movie, and as a result, the film loses its flow, its momentum.

Don’t get me wrong – Secretariat is a fine movie of its sort. It’s unlikely that anyone who enjoys these types of movies is going to walk away disappointed in this one. But while the other movies flirted with overt cheesiness, Secretariat goes a little far overboard for my tastes.

Note: I am aware of the arguments that the film has inspired, mainly because of Andrew O’Hair’s review of the film, and Roger Ebert’s response to it. O’Hair compared the movie to Nazi propaganda, citing Secretariat as a genetic freak of nature who was bred using eugenics, and the movies rose colored view of its time period and its Christain values, as a cynical attempt to appeal to the Tea Party movement, and that the movie trades in racial stereotypes. As to the first charge about the genetics of the horse, of course it’s true. This is how race horses are bred – always have been, always will be, so unless you object to horse racing in general – which is a valid point to make – than I don’t see how Secretariat is any worse than any other horse racing movie. And if you object to this type of breeding, then you also have to object to pure bred cats and dogs as well. As for the Tea Party thing, I didn’t really see it in the movie, unless you count a loving, Christain family as being “conservative”. The religion in the movie is so muted that it is pretty much obsolete. And, yes, the 1970s is looked on a little too nostalgically, yet it does address the political controversy with the oldest daughter, and even has Diane Lane tell her that while their political beliefs may differ, she is proud of her daughter for standing up for what she believes in. As for racial stereotypes, yes Eddie Sweat is a little too over the top as the African American stable hand – but he is treated with respect by everyone in the movie, and hardly just a glorified slave. The owner of Secretariat’s chief rival is a little swarthier than the rest of the cast, but I hardly made the connections O’Hair did. Too me, all this is much ado about nothing.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for "Secretariat" movie review. it's sounds likes there more goods in this movies than bads. is this movie fit fo children (10+ years old)? thanks!