Secretariat
Directed by Randall Wallace
Starring: Diane Lane,
John Malkovich
Rated PG for brief
mild language
1 hr. 47 mins.

Horse racing movies, like all inspirational sports movies, follow a predictable formula: an unlikely hero (pitted against a formidable foe) rises to the challenge, captivates observers, sheds light on some timely, hot-button issue and validates the decisions of the wise old mentor who believed in the champion all along. Most of the time, these films are incredibly uptight, boring and saccharine.

There are a few, in the derided inspirational sports genre, that managed to rise above the formula. Football had Friday Night Lights, a movie that grittily conveyed the psyche of a small Texas town as it religiously followed its high school team. Hockey — you may laugh at this — had The Mighty Ducks, which managed to kick-start a slew of even more syrupy kiddy fare for a younger generation. There are, of course, the more hard-nosed grandfathers of such films in Rocky and Hoosiers that spawned relentless imitators.

And then there was Seabiscuit, a film that Secretariat director Randall Wallace tries mightily to ape, which managed to catch Tobey Maguire at the peak of his fame, Chris Cooper as he began to round into mid-career form and Jeff Bridges in one of his most charismatic performances. Rather than framing the film as the triumph of the underdog, it was content to gaze steadily at the “broken” aspects of each of the leads and fleshed out each of them in the process.

So when the rousing soundtrack hit its inevitable climax in the races, audiences actually cared about the characters, rather than having been manipulated into rooting for them based on sepia-toned images, clever editing and a heart-tugging score.

Secretariat, despite the best efforts of Diane Lane and John Malkovich, is one of the saccharine sports films. A mess of a movie, it’s more Disney schlock than a budding best picture contender. And, perhaps due to budgetary constraints, there’s a peculiar lack of actual horse racing throughout the film. Instead, audiences are treated to far too much of Secretariat’s lucky owner Penny Chenery’s (Diane Lane) cardboard cut-outs of a family, who don’t appear to be too interested in the fact that their mother is single-handedly helping breed the greatest horse of its generation.

Those youth who (like me) only vaguely heard of Secretariat’s exploits in 1973, will no doubt be happy to learn that the horse’s story neatly fits into the predictable formula of a Disney picture. It’s unfortunate, really, that the legend of a racehorse who (spoiler) managed to win the Triple Crown is given such prosaic treatment here. The confusingly paced plot frets more about Chenery’s ability to “save” her family’s estate than the actual nuances of how such a horse was trained, maintained and introduced to racing. It gives zero backstory for Chenery, giving Lane little to work with other than the single note “I’m more than just a housewife” refrain. And it is never really explained why the horse is named Secretariat. Also, former presidential contender Fred Thompson makes an excruciatingly inexplicable cameo in the film, along with Entourage’s Kevin Connolly. And did I already mention that there’s very little actual horseracing?

Fortunately, the few race sequences that appear treat audiences to magnificent close-ups of the horses as they stare down their opponents in the starting gate and struggle to out-pace each other on the track. Every clomp, breath and neigh is captured and, wisely, the banter between the jockeys is muted during this time. When added together, it makes for almost a full 10 minutes of compelling viewing.

erik@vcreporter.com