Seeing a movie about a historical event is kind of like going on a date with a good friend. Some of the tension and mystery are gone, replaced by a familiarity that can be either heart-warming or ho-hum. It all depends on the chemistry.
In the movie world, this means that we viewers need something fresh to make up for the fact that we know the Titanic sank, the astronauts survived, the horse won—an unknown backstory, engaging characters, compelling storytelling, a ginormous James Cameron production. Something to make the story worth revisiting.
Even if you aren't old enough to have seen racehorse Secretariat grace the covers of three magazines—Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated—in 1973 after becoming the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years, I'm surely not spoiling anything here by saying that this is a movie about a remarkable horse that wins races against all odds.
So what's the fresh angle here? Mostly it's Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a housewife who inherits the horse after both of her aging parents die in a short span of time. A mom of four busy kids, Penny is an unlikely candidate for the racing world—especially in the early 1970s when that industry was still dominated by men.
Drawing on idyllic childhood memories with her champion-horse-breeding father, and her pluck as a soccer mom (before such a term really existed), Penny dives into the racing world. Her brother wants to sell the family horse farm to cover all the property taxes; her husband wants her at home more (they live in Colorado; the farm is in Virginia); and her stable manager, thinking she's a silly ignoramus, tries to swindle her out of lots of money by attempting to sell some of the better horses in some shady deals.
But Penny is undaunted. She researches the horse-breeding world enough to recognize she has a colt with some impressive, prize-winning lineage. She hires an eccentric veteran trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), to train the horse. Along the way she relies heavily on the wisdom of the family's stable hand, Eddie (Nelsan Ellis), and her late father's secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), who names the horse when they enter him in his first race.
There are ongoing financial troubles, continued skepticism about a woman being successful in a man's world, and challenges as Penny misses some of her kids' milestones while she's away at key races. But the struggles are fairly light. And they're overshadowed by Penny's dad-isms, such as "You never know how far you can go unless you run," and close-ups of Secretariat's dark, determined eyes. It's sweet and plucky and oh-so-Disney. Whether or not you consider those things good completely depends on your personal movie tastes.
For me, the film got a little too saccharine at times—such as the hokey phone conversations in which Penny tells her oldest daughter, a budding activist, that she always raised her to stand up for what she believes.
There are also some religious references in the film, mostly in voiceovers and background music. In the very opening scenes, Lane reads some poetic verses from Job 39 about a mighty steed. These strong words ("He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray"), paired with Lane's commanding voice, make for a rousing effect, especially for those who know Job's inspiring story and the One who created mighty steeds in the first place.
While this is a lovely religious tie-in, the next spiritual reference felt a bit odd. Penny is at her wit's end grappling with the dire financial realities and her strong belief in Secretariat. All practicality says she should sell everything to break even, but this strong woman knows that sometimes you have to defy logic to achieve greatness.
In this state of confusion, she walks out of the barn to see Eddie washing Secretariat while the old hit "O Happy Day" play on his radio. Penny, Miss Ham, and Lucien join in the grooming as the song intensifies, becoming part of the soundtrack, bathing the scene. While the lyrics match Penny's resolve to choose joy and gratitude over worry, there's something odd about hearing the lyric "when Jesus washed my sins away" while seeing a sudsy steed. Still, it's a joyful and inspiring scene.
Lane does a pretty decent job with the sometimes-cheesy lines given to her. Sometimes she saves them, sometimes she almost makes them worse. But overall she embodies a strong female character well. Malkovich is his usual quirky self in a quirky role, only treading into caricature territory once or twice. Margo Martindale and Nelsan Ellis as Miss Ham and Eddie round out the compelling community here with winning charm.
If you like sweet, safe tales of triumph, Secretariat is a sure bet. But if you like films with a bit more tension and complexity, you'll likely consider this a pleasant enough romp that doesn't completely satisfy.Discussion starters
- Do you think Penny was right to risk the family farm and finances for her belief in Secretariat?
- What do you think about Penny's balance between work and family? What did she get right and maybe not as right?
- In one scene Penny talks about relating to the young Secretariat, remembering when she was a young college student full of promise and thinking wistfully about how she gave up some of that dream for her family. Do you get the impression she regretted any of her decisions?
- As a woman, Penny has to work extra hard to be taken seriously in the man's world of horse racing. Have you ever been an outsider having to work extra hard to win respect? How did this shape you? Is there an outsider in your life you could meet partway in his or her attempt to fit in?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Secretariat is rated PG for brief mild language. Overall it's a sweet family film with compelling themes of triumph over adversity.
Photos © Walt Disney Pictures
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