Similar to the way Big Red ran most of his races -- coming from behind the pack -- Secretariat starts out slowly, then picks up momentum as the story enfolds. Kudos to Wallace (We Were Soldiers) for allowing us to get settled in with the characters before unleashing the movie’s powerful dramatic elements. Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun) transforms herself into Penny Chenery, a housewife with strong convictions and nerves of steel, who sees great things in store for the foal she wins in a coin toss.
Although faced with almost insurmountable obstacles, Penny’s commitment to this unusual colt never waivers. At great risk to her relationship with her husband (Dylan Walsh) and children, Penny decides to do everything she can to save her father’s horse farm and to make sure Big Red has the best trainer (John Malkovich as Lucien Laurin) and jockey (Otto Thorwath as Ron Turcotte) possible.
If Secretariat needed an alternate title, it could have been A Woman and Her Horse, for the film is as much about Penny as it is about Big Red. Lane makes us understand the woman’s deep connection with this amazing animal, especially in a poignant scene showing non-verbal communication between the two before an important race.
Fortunately, Lane receives strong support from the rest of the fine cast, including the beautiful horses portraying Secretariat. Malkovich (Burn After Reading) and Margo Martindale (Orphan) add a touch of humor as the unconventional, flashy trainer and Penny’s droll secretary, respectively. Nelsan Ellis (The Soloist) stands out as the gentle groom, the man who spent most time with Secretariat, and Walsh (The Stepfather) is convincing as a husband dismayed about his wife’s absence from the family. In fact, he’s so convincing I wanted to shake him a couple of times and say, “Get with the program!”
Of course, central to this story of the greatest racehorse of all time are the racing sequences. Cinematographer Dean Semlar (2012) deserves credit for giving viewers a chance to view part of one race almost the way the jockey sees it as well as for fascinating shots of the horses inside the starting gate. Moments before a particular race begins, Secretariat seems to be giving one of his most important challengers the “evil eye” and vice versa. Details like this enhance the movie’s visual appeal. And, even though I knew how each race would turn out, I couldn’t help feeling excited as the powerful thoroughbreds thundered down the track.
Skillfully adapted for the screen by Mike Rich (The Rookie) and suggested by Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack, Secretariat ranks high on my list of all-time favorite racing films. I’m sure it will also end up on many “2010 Best Movies” lists. (Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated “PG” for brief mild language.)
Review also posted at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.