A failing horse farm rests its financial future on a promising racehorse.
Directed by Randall Wallace
Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, and John Walsh
Review by Jon Kissel
The problem with Secretariat is that there’s nothing at stake but a wealthy woman’s romantic attachment to her childhood home and a successful investment. That the investment is a beautiful, once-in-a-generation animal is something, but it doesn’t change the fact that no one is at any risk in a film with no conflict. Secretariat doesn’t even have the horse-racing second-act trope of injury followed by a comeback. Instead, the horse is dominant from the start. Watching Penny hodl til her returns go to the moon is superficially compelling thanks to the sports miracle that is Secretariat, but it’s not her stubbornness that makes her horse run fast.
Someone might know exactly why one horse is faster than another. It’s Secretariat’s job to convey anything at all to the viewer about the vagaries of horse training. How does the most famous horse this side of Mr. Hands emerge? For Wallace and therefore the viewer, it’s a complete mystery. Laurin has no answers. Jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) isn’t afraid of getting hurt and that helps him ride faster supposedly. Margo Martindale plays the Chenery’s longtime secretary and her immediate statement after Penny calls her the smartest person on the farm is, “great colts come from great sires.” The horse is able to stand up quickly after birth, Penny bonds with him, he eats a lot, and then he’s a champion. Per Secretariat, horse racing and movie making share a motto of ‘nobody knows anything.’
If the film’s not going to be a technical expose about the sport, it can at least endear me to the characters. No luck there either. Penny’s brassy dame act needs more brass, and little sympathy is generated by her choosing to miss out on her family’s life in Denver and then feeling bad about it. This is a film that takes place over years. What exactly is it that she’s doing in Kentucky that only she can do? Her relationship with her husband is bloodless, with the barest hints of mid-century male resentment rising in a film with no firm convictions about anything. Her hippie daughters might have something to say about the wealthy playground her mother is operating in, but they’re instead the only teenagers who never have fight with their parents. The relationship between Penny and her father never resonates because it isn’t seen at its best. There’s no flashback to more lucid times, just Lane looking wistfully at a disheveled Glenn. Amongst the humans, Secretariat runs from anything approaching depth or nuance in favor of exalting a woman whose greatest problem is the estate tax.
The incompetence of Secretariat extends past the storytelling and into the editing. Time is a complete mess in this film. Sports movies need montages, and Wallace avoids them at every opportunity. What kind of Disney movie minimizes the amount of time spent with an adorable foal? Why cut past Secretariat’s first race straight into the post-race locker room? Would Penny learn about Secretariat winning Horse of the Year from someone else holding up a newspaper? The big play to earn money is to sell Secretariat’s breeding shares. The film moves from a long sequence of no one being interested to a scene where rich James Cromwell refuses to buy one to them all being sold. How did Penny convince people to do so, especially it seemed like she had failed with every horse owner in Kentucky?
A little reading about the real Penny Chenery reveals that there was even less conflict in her real life during this period than there is in the movie about her. She owned a Derby-winning horse in the year before Secretariat’s big run who was also trained by Laurin, not that the film would let the viewer know any of that. This is an insane omission, but there couldn’t be a movie about the ‘underdog’ owner of Secretariat who also owned the previous Derby winner. I don’t need my movies about real events to be 100% accurate, or even 50% accurate. My love for the Social Network speaks to that. However, if a film is going to embellish or withhold, don’t do it to the benefit of the highest tier of power within a sport. Secretariat was an incredible horse with an unremarkable owner, but why would any owner be remarkable? D+