MRR Movie Review: Secretariat


Movie Review: "Secretariat"

Rating: PG (Brief mild language)
Length: 123 minutes
Release Date: October 8, 2010
Directed by: Randall Wallace
Genre: Drama/Family/History

Most people love to root for an underdog, especially when said underdog is in a movie based on a true story. One such tale is recounted in "Secretariat," which was adapted for the screen despite the fact that the lead character, a chestnut racehorse, can't speak a word of English. The limitations of having a horse as the main character are easily surmounted, as the film tugs at viewers' heartstrings and delivers an uplifting message about beating the odds.

The film begins with Penny (Diane Lane), a housewife who seemingly has it all. She has a handsome lawyer husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh), with whom she is raising four children. In 1969, she is shaken by the death of her father (Scott Glenn), who leaves her with a huge tax burden because of his estate. Although Penny is offered millions of dollars for her late father's horse farm, she nixes the deal because she believes a newborn colt in the stable will be a winner. Though initially called Big Red, the horse would later be given the official name of Secretariat.

Horses don't train themselves, so Penny has to constantly travel between her home in Colorado and the farm in Virginia, where the horse is. This situation strains her marriage, though director Randall Wallace is wise not to let this bit of melodrama overtake the main story line, which is Secretariat's journey to becoming a champion. Infamous horse trainer Lucien (John Malkovich) has retired and is ready to hit the golf course, even though he is truly awful at the game; however, Penny attempts to coax him out of retirement to train Secretariat. He finally relents, which sets up a montage of training sessions as Penny deals with the emotional and financial fallouts of her decisions.

By 1973, Secretariat has won many races and is living up to the genetic legacy given him by his champion parents. Two of those races are the Belmont Stakes and the Kentucky Derby, which are two parts of horseracing's Triple Crown. To complete the Crown, Secretariat must win the Preakness Stakes, which is much easier said than done. In fact, Triple Crown winners are very rare, which means the horse faces some very long odds if he is to complete the historic feat that Penny and Lucien have guided him to.

Lane is a fine actress who doesn't have a single bad performance in her vast body of movie roles. The role of Penny continues her string of pitch-perfect takes on difficult, complex characters. Penny has many difficult decisions to make, some of which the audience may not totally agree with. However, whether moviegoers approve of her actions or not, they can't help but be drawn to the character and root for her no matter what she does. The strong performance by Lane makes this connection with the audience possible. Likewise, Lucien could have easily been a character with little audience support, especially in his early scenes when he is downright nasty to Penny. Malkovich is perfectly cast because he has a knack for taking a caddish character like Vicomte S├ębastien de Valmont in "Dangerous Liasons" and making him likable. He does the same for Lucien, who is almost irresistible by the end of the movie.

With strong performances by Lane and Malkovich, it would be fairly easy to overlook the film's supporting actors. Fortunately, veteran Margo Martindale doesn't fade into the background. Her take on Miss Ham is full of pluck and is in some ways the heart and soul of the film. When Penny takes on her mission to make Secretariat a winner, she runs afoul of her family in many ways, and the older woman offers nothing but encouraging words, almost matching Penny's grit and occasional stubbornness. Miss Ham's loyalty gives Penny the strength she needs to forge ahead with her mission, even if it is to the detriment of some of her personal relationships.

As the film reaches its final act, several story lines come to a head in a dramatic, exciting, and sometimes exhilarating way. Will Penny's dogged determination lead to her being the owner of the first Triple Crown winner in over two decades? Will Secretariat prove everyone wrong about his ability to become a winner? Because the film is based on a true story, a simple online search would quickly yield the answers to these questions. However, it is much more fun and compelling to take two hours out of the day and watch "Secretariat" to get the answers.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars