Not knowing what’s going to happen is one of the biggest draws for storytelling in any medium. So when a film tackles a historical story part of the allure is lost because audiences already know how it ends. All that’s left is to present the rest of the film – the actions, thoughts, stumbles and achievements – in the most visually and emotionally intriguing manner as possible. Secretariat succeeds in that regard in every way imaginable. So those viewers that are already familiar with the true events on which the film is based and newcomers alike can all watch this movie knowing that they’re about to be told a very moving story that everyone will appreciate.
In 1969 Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) inherited her father’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables. Initially, the plan her family had decided on was to arrange the father’s end-life affairs, including what to do with the property. When Penny discovers documents regarding a coin-toss decision between two foals that could potentially grow up to be valuable race horses she follows her natural instincts and decides to train the foal her family ends up with. Despite having limited experience in raising and training race horses and contending with the difficulties of raising a family of four children, Penny teams up with retired trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to get her horse into racing shape. Unfortunately, financial troubles force Penny into taking a desperate gamble in order to draw investors: She guarantees that her animal will win the Triple Crown, which means three specific difficult races in five weeks – a feat not accomplished in 25 years. Her horse is named Secretariat.
Almost every aspect of this film is sheer delight. All of the actors are fun to watch, especially Diane Lane who turns in a very natural performance. She never slips into melodrama and doesn’t depress the audience during the more tender moments in the film. Lane simply appeals to human empathy and viewers understand her struggle, without having to feel bad. Of course it’s the visual presentation that steals the show. With so much of the film taken up by the many races Secretariat has to run, the filmmakers pulled out every trick in the book to shoot those scenes differently each time in order to keep viewers interested. Credit definitely goes to cinematographer Dean Semler for the inspired slow-motion shot of Secretariat crossing the finishing line with his form floating across the screen straight as an arrow. Jockey point-of-view shots are also sparingly –but effectively – employed to really give viewers a strong sense of these animals’ power and what it’s like to be in one of these races.
Secretariat is also smartly written, giving the film a strong direction. Penny Chenery’s life is complicated. She’s a woman contending in a male-dominated arena. She’s splitting herself between two full-time positions. And if her endeavor with Secretariat fails, she could be mortgaging her family’s lives to pay off an insurmountable debt. The film, however, makes sure to focus on the races, which is probably the most satisfying alternative that will appeal to the broadest audience. Furthermore, even though the outcome of the story is well documented, screenwriter Mike Rich still manages to cast a little bit of doubt at the end through clever writing.
If there is a place to criticize Secretariat it would be in its lack of true adversity for Penny Chenery. This woman has an indomitable spirit. She strides confidently into gentlemen-only clubs, she fires and hires trainers like a professional and not once does she question all of the time away from her kids. There are moments of conflict, like when her husband makes it clear that he doesn’t appreciate Penny being away so much, but there’s never a full-blown argument or pivotal decision moment. Instead, most of the drama revolves around Secretariat’s performance, which Penny doesn’t really have much say in other than raking her racing team through the coals. This complaint is minor, however, since it’s the horse that everyone wants to see win.
Secretariat is a solid film all around that everyone should enjoy, but is especially geared toward families. Children will get caught up in the excitement of the races and parents will appreciate the uplifting themes of familial support and following dreams through. There’s also a bit of refreshing religious reference that won’t feel preachy to non-believers, but will still get across the idea of having faith even in the most uncertain circumstances, because sometimes that’s all there is. See Secretariat. That’s likely the best tip you’ll get on a horse from anyone.