Disney endeavors to make a quick buck off the fastest horse in history with Secretariat, a by-the-numbers bit of inspirational mythmaking from director Randall Wallace. While the film is guaranteed to finish in the money, it’s a curiously empty and unconvincing creation.
Many reviewers have noted that the picture appears to have been crafted in the mold of last year’s megahit The Blind Side, and it’s easy to see where they’re coming from. It’s clearly conceived with conservative Christian audiences in mind. The movie opens with a biblical quote, prominently features gospel music and tells the story of a family so square they make the Cleavers look like spouse-swapping swingers.
Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, the well-to-do Denver housewife and mother of four who inherited a Virginia horse farm from her even wealthier father (Scott Glenn) and, to the surprise of her husband (Dylan Walsh) and young children, pretty much relocated to the estate to oversee the birth raising and training of an animal she had a hunch would become the greatest racehorse ever. The script by Mike Rich fails adequately to explain her powers of equine prognostication and glosses over the domestic repercussions of her all but abandoning her family.
The makers of the film are far more interested in framing their tale as a triumph against the odds and a testament to the power of faith. An attempt is made, for example, to convince the viewer that Lane breaks down old-boys’-club barriers to enter the world of high-stakes racing. Yet her character never encounters resistance of any real significance. She’s white, rich, Southern and owns a stable full of thoroughbreds. For the most part she’s treated like Virginia royalty, as far as I can see.
And, wow, what a laughable attempt at comic relief is provided by John Malkovich in the role of transplanted French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin. The film portrays virtually all non-Americans as goofballs or louts. Laurin is a clown savant in garish plaid hats and outlandish duds. In contrast to the insightful trainer played by Chris Cooper in 2003’s infinitely superior Seabiscuit, Laurin utters barely a word of racehorse wisdom. Only once, near the film’s conclusion, does he say anything remotely indicating he possesses specialized knowledge of the species.
OK, one doesn’t buy a ticket to this movie for the surprises. Everybody knows going in that Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse to do so in a quartercentury. Several of his speed records remain unbroken. He was a great animal. He deserved a movie portrait every bit as great. This isn’t it.
This is a picture that plays fast and loose with the facts, attempts to suggest inspirational barrier busting where there was none, and is rife with xenophobia. (Besides portraying Laurin like a buffoon who wandered in off the set of a Jerry Lewis comedy, it depicts Secretariat’s chief rival’s owner, Pancho Martin — whose actual first name was Frank — as a swarthy, arrogant blowhard and stages confrontational press conferences that never took place.) In addition, it provides stunningly little insight into the world of racing. The races themselves are exciting because Secretariat had a habit of coming out of the gate in low gear and gradually accelerating past the pack.
They’re not filmed with any particular panache, however; the techniques devised to put the viewer in the midst of the hustle and bustle in Seabiscuit outshine any devised by Wallace. And, apart from the race sequences, forget it. The movie’s staggeringly short on layered, believable characters and long on lazy plotting and cornball dialogue. Way too zealous, as well, with the Christianity card. Last time I checked, Jesus didn’t play the ponies.