Secretariat, by Bold Ruler by Nasrullah, out of Somethingroyal by Princequillo, is widely regarded as the greatest racehorse who ever lived. And now Disney has assembled a straightforward and predictable, though touching story of his rise to victory.
Penny Tweedy, née Chenery (Diane Lane), returns to her family’s horse farm in the wake of her mother’s death to find her father slipping into senility and the training operation into mismanagement. She boldly fires the current trainer and hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) with his checkered history to take over. Shortly thereafter, an unorthodox wager on two foals by the same sire puts her into possession of the one out of the less-desirable dam. She trusts him to the grooming of Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis, thankfully avoiding Magic Negro territory), who dubs him “Big Red”, and after some initial missteps hires the occasionally overzealous Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) as his jockey. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Truly, the movie casts this as the story of a scrappy band of underdogs. Some motions are made towards recognizing the extraordinary breeding history of modern racehorses — Secretariat’s pedigree can be verified over a century and a half back without much difficulty — but the narrative is all about “heart” and the will to win. Penny has heart; Lucien has heart; Ronnie has so much heart that he’s rumored to have literally burst the heart of a previous horse who clearly didn’t have enough heart. The only one who isn’t explicitly described as having heart is Eddie. All of this, I can only assume, grows out of the fact that the real Secretariat’s heart actually was found on his death to be two and a half times the size of a normal racehorse’s, though no mention of that fact is made either during the movie or in the closing.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter. This is a feel-good live-action Disney flick at heart, and the source material has to bend a little to serve that goal. Penny’s daughter’s arc presents a cleaned-up version of early ’70s anti-war activism, and when singing “My Old Kentucky Home”, Churchill Downs replaces “darkies” with “people” thirteen years before it happened in real life. But these are mere details. The racing scenes are shot beautifully, though I’d quibble with Wallace’s choice of iconic photographs from the Belmont Stakes finish to imitate. He gives a great recreation of “The Photo” taken by Belmont’s track photographer Bob Coglianese, but with an entire movie screen as the canvas he could do a much better job of communicating just how enormous a lead 31 lengths is. And the need to show Penny’s husband’s change of heart drags us away from what could have been a powerful dramatic scene about the malfunctioning timer at the Preakness. But again: details.
If you look past all these petty details then by the time the obligatory “what happened then” slides run what remains is a charming little inoffensive family film. And really, what else can be expected from Disney?
Worth it: It could go either way. If you have a family to entertain, then there aren’t many better options.
Bechdel test: pass.