Penny (Diane Lane: Nights in Rodanthe) is a Denver housewife returned to the family’s Virginia horse farm by her mother’s death. She means to stay just long enough to set the stables in order. But Penny’s equestrian id returns full force, and her passion flares when she’s gifted with the prize foal that will become Secretariat. She’s hooked. Soon — with the help of trainer Lucien (John Malkovich: Jonah Hex), plus a few friends — Penny finds herself questing to save the farm by fielding a precocious stallion that will become the most legendary racehorse of all time.
So emerges a retelling of sports legend that presents Secretariat’s tale as one woman’s brave and determined striving, driven by her faith in one super-heroic horse.
It’s a deep faith. Disney’s worship of the miraculous horse almost makes him a golden cow. The story is sandwiched by readings of a passage from the Book of Job, and at a some points between it seems as though Secretariat might gallop on water or divvy a handful of oats throughout the grandstand. Secretariat shines to the cue of “Oh Happy Day” a couple times, and Penny basks within the glow of his empty birth stable as though she’s visiting a certain manger.
The miracle vibe fits the thick inspirational tone. Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and his screenwriter are pretty focused on banging home Hollywood uplift, opening a can of sappy orchestral scoring to float ubiquitously behind a peppering of overwrought and allegedly profound figurative language that may or may not have been borrowed from Successories posters. You’ve got to run after your dreams, or something like that. When dialogue isn’t cheerleading, it tends to be disconnected bluster, such as when Penny’s husband steps out of the blue to tell her she’s a fine example of woman to their daughters, then walks away just as abruptly. There is good dialogue to be found, as when Penny and Lucien meet for the first time. But it’s a little overwhelmed.
Story is a neat timeline over years and nicely charts Secretariat’s rise to fame and glory. But the trip is a quick clip of summary. Secretariat grows from foal to colt in an instant, and the races come in quick sequence broken up by Penny’s life events. The strain between racing and family offers dramatic tension, but the family tends to fall off the radar, and troubles are confined to a few terse statements.
Storytelling may be abbreviated, but Wallace and crew deserve credit for piecing together riveting racing scenes that manage to build suspense, even when you know the end. The filmmakers reportedly used six horses (four thoroughbreds, one quarter horse and one trick horse) to portray the legend; one for size, another for speed, a glory hog for personality. In the end, the filmic horse carries the film with energy and personality — and hands in a better performance than melodramatic Lane.
All told, the movie is goopy inspiration formula spiced with smart racing action and interesting history. It’s not exactly great filmmaking, but it passes for decent entertainment.