It's being promoted as a sports movie, but I'm not so sure. Introducing Secretariat at the recent Movies for Grownups Film Festival, I noted that this was much more a movie about a woman than a horse. And therein lies the triumph of the film — and a minor weakness.
Secretariat, based upon the book with the same name by racing columnist William Nack, tells the story of the 1973 Triple Crown champion's owner, Penny Chenery. Following the death of Penny's father, her brother and sister want to sell the family's Virginia horse farm. But Penny — a Colorado housewife and mother who also happens to be a Columbia Business School grad — resists. Somehow, she manages to put her domestic life on hold — parenting by telephone — for a number of years to step into her father's shoes. At the farm, in short order she fires the stable manager, tracks bloodlines to select ideal breeders, oversees the birth of Secretariat, hires the flamboyant trainer Lucien Laurin — and the rest is history.
After a slow start, the lovely Diane Lane warms into the role of Penny; stiff at first (perhaps in an attempt to portray female toughness as it might have been viewed in the 1960s), she emerges as the spirited, independent, feisty and fun woman Mrs. Chenery still is today at age 88. John Malkovich is brilliant as Laurin, bringing viewers along with him on the nerve-wracking, exhilarating racetrack ride. Scott Glenn, who plays Penny's ailing father in the opening scenes, could have benefitted from greater character development, while James Cromwell, who plays a competing horse race business owner named Bull Hancock, does a terrific job of imbuing his character with the aristocratic sensibility of thoroughbred breeders. Margo Martindale, as Christopher Chenery's secretary and, ultimately, Penny's right-hand woman, is fun to watch, as is Nelsan Ellis, who plays Secretariat's handler Eddie Sweat.
Director Randall Wallace (who wrote and directed We Were Soldiers) does a good job of building suspense and anticipation; by the time Secretariat gets to the Belmont Stakes, third leg of the Triple Crown, audiences will be on their feet cheering.
But given that the lady behind the horse is the true subject here, I wish, in the end, I understood more thoroughly the impact the sacrifices she made had on her family, why she did it and what it truly felt like for her when her horse won it all, after all.