As the Walt Disney Pictures enchanted castle logo unerringly indicates, "Secretariat" is a fairy tale about a horse. If you're in the mood for it, and in the mood for a strong and satisfying performance by Diane Lane, you're definitely in the right place.
Though the movie is based on the exploits of arguably the greatest horse who ever lived, a thoroughbred of whom it was truly said "his only reference is himself," "Secretariat" is hardly the place to look for a thoroughly factual account of the events in William Nack's book of the same name.
For not only do "Secretariat's" credits say it was merely "suggested by" Nack's work rather than the customary "based on," but one of director Randall Wallace's favorite sayings is, "Let's not let the facts get in the way of truth." Nuff said.
In telling the story of the riches-to-riches story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, "Secretariat" shows no fear of the sentimental, and that's putting it mildly. This is an old-fashioned, super-genteel family movie that opens with an equine quote from the Book of Job and makes ample use of the Edwin Hawkins Singers' gospel song "Oh Happy Day."
With a film like this, moments of emotion-run-amok excessiveness are inevitable, but a trio of interlocking factors keep the winces at a minimum and stop the film from going too far off the rails.
Number one, it always helps to have a good story, and though Secretariat was never the underdog Seabiscuit was, his triumphs made him visible enough to make the cover of both Time and Newsweek and to become, in Nack's words, "a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam war."
Though Wallace, who wrote the Oscar-winning "Braveheart," is clearly bullish on unapologetic emotion, at least equal credit should be given to screenwriter Mike Rich, whose work on both "The Rookie" and "Miracle" (about the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team) reveals a genuine touch for stirring sports dramas that need to be feelingly told without getting out of hand.
The third and likely most significant factor in the success of "Secretariat" is Diane Lane's crucial performance as Penny Chenery, who owned the horse and was a trailblazer in a male-dominated world that was unapologetically unfriendly to women with power.
Because Secretariat did not face serious challenges once he hit his Triple Crown stride, the obstacles no film can do without had to be in the human arena. That meant a focus on Chenery having to prove herself to her brother, her husband and her children as well as to the racing elite, confrontations that give the film an unexpected Hollywood feminism slant that will likely not hurt at the box office.
Oscar-nominated for "Unfaithful," Lane has been a familiar and welcome face to moviegoers since her 1979 debut in "A Little Romance." She is an actress with an instinct for honesty, someone incapable of false moves, and her restrained, focused performance as Chenery is a graceful stabilizing force here. In an unashamed movie that can't resist pushing too hard, having someone who pulls things back toward reality is more than welcome — it's essential.
Lane's character is introduced as a classic suburban Denver housewife circa 1969, her life dedicated to her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and their four children. Then she gets a phone call that causes her to drop and break a kitchen bowl (yes, it's that kind of a movie). Her mother has died, and she has to go back to her childhood home, Meadow Farm near Doswell, Va., for the funeral.
Not only is her mother dead but her father Chris (an always welcome Scott Glenn) is ailing and the future of his racing stable is in jeopardy. Unwilling to let it be sold, Penny Chenery says she will hang out "for a few days" to try and pull things together.
It turns out, no surprise, that Chenery is her father's daughter, a tough, savvy individual who knows a ton about horses. With the help of her father's secretary Miss Ham ( Margo Martindale), his friend Bull Hancock ( Fred Dalton Thompson) and kindly groom Eddie Sweat ( Nelsan Ellis), she starts to pull things together.
Helping considerably is an enormous piece of good luck. As the result of a coin toss (which she loses) with the wealthy Ogden Phipps ( James Cromwell), Chenery gets ownership of one of two colts sired by the great Bold Ruler. That noble youngster, known to intimates as Big Red, is the future Secretariat.
Chenery also persuades reluctant trainer Lucien Laurin (predictably eccentric John Malkovich) to take on the horse, and feisty jockey Ron Turcotte (real-life jock Otto Thorwarth) to ride him. All the while trying to manage choppy relationships with her husband, her peacenik daughter (AJ Michalka) and even her stumbling-block brother ( Dylan Baker).
What saves her, and the movie, are those Triple Crown races that Secretariat dominated in historic style. With veteran cinematographer Dean Semler behind the camera, when those pounding hoofs come flying down the track, it's hard not to be happy that you are there to watch them fly.