America’s greatest racehorse was no underdog, a fact that gives “Secretariat” an unexpected edge among inspirational sports dramas. Starring Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, proud owner of the chestnut-colored colt that broke all records to win the 1973 Triple Crown, this conventional but rousingly effective picture pulls through its occasional faltering stretches by focusing on the essentials of its incredible real-life saga, even if the details have been massaged for maximum uplift. With proper nurturing, Disney release could muster impressive B.O. stamina, catering to the audiences that made “The Blind Side” a heartland hit.
If Mike Rich’s screenplay presents a simplified version of events, it’s often gratifyingly tough-minded in its depiction of the often ruthless imperatives of the racing world. William Nack’s account of the saga (which gets a “suggested by” credit here) was pointedly titled “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” and Chenery and her team are indeed portrayed here as fiercely committed individuals who all but willed a winner into existence.
Married to lawyer Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) with four children, Denver housewife Penny (Lane) is shaken out of her domestic routine by her mother’s death, which has left the Chenerys’ Virginia farm in the hands of Penny’s sickly father (Scott Glenn). In a series of scenes accompanied by too many funereal violins, Penny decides not to sell the farm, hoping to keep the Chenery stables open by breeding a champion.
Her efforts are presented with a wealth of detail that will please horse enthusiasts and enlighten others, the most fascinating of which is the formal coin toss between Penny and rival breeder Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) to determine the first pick of two foals produced by Phipps’ stallion. Phipps wins the toss, but Penny gets the better horse, a natural-born runner christened Secretariat by the Chenerys’ faithful assistant, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), and looked after by devoted groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis).
Penny also seeks help from two brilliant but down-on-their-luck horsemen: trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, delightfully cantankerous), whose fashion sense is as flamboyant as his temper, and Ronnie Turcotte, a stubbornly persistent jockey and future Hall of Famer (played by real-life rider Otto Thorwarth in his acting debut).
Penny, Lucien and Ronnie form a sort of equestrian trinity, and the sharp, unsentimental insight of “Secretariat” is that while luck certainly plays its part, a winning thoroughbred is, by and large, a feat of human engineering: the best genetic match and the right combination of caretakers. At the same time, the film can’t resist turning these majestic creatures into objects of worship, making liberal use of “Oh Happy Day” and having Lane quote the book of Job in voiceover (none of which will hurt the film’s popularity with the Christian market).
Rich and director Randall Wallace (“The Man in the Iron Mask,” “We Were Soldiers”) have the challenge of wringing drama and excitement from a story whose outcome is never in doubt, and whose title character demonstrates superb consistency on the racetrack. They manage by effectively modulating the buildup to each race and finding fresh ways to cover similar events, especially when Secretariat must run the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the climactic 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in quick succession (of the Triple Crown tracks, only Churchill Downs was used in the production, which was lensed in Kentucky and Louisiana).
Pic’s most obvious and immediate forerunner is “Seabiscuit” (2003), which turned a little horse that could into a symbol of America’s indomitable spirit during the Great Depression. Though it boasts less in the way of production polish, “Secretariat” spins the more satisfying yarn, allowing its story to stand on its own without straining for metaphorical significance or faux gravitas.
Gently if unmistakably feminist in its account of a lady who classily showed up a male-dominated arena, the film is on less secure footing in its treatment of Penny’s increasingly strained family life. Script’s attempts to flesh out the politics of the era — largely through Penny’s hippie daughter Kate (AJ Michalka), whose anti-Vietnam activism unsubtly mirrors her mother’s own passionate cause — yield a few clunky scenes that play like outtakes from “The Brady Bunch.”
Elaborately coiffed (if not always flatteringly lit), Lane projects the combo of homespun warmth and steely determination that has always been intrinsic to her screen appeal. Of the sterling supporting thesps, Cromwell is a subtle standout as the breeding vet who regards Penny with both annoyance and admiration.
Exciting race sequences made use of a small digital camera for closeup saddle shots, and the lower-grade video footage stands in noticeable contrast with Dean Semler’s HD lensing, giving the picture a visual roughness that’s not inappropriate to its subject.