Growing up, my parents and I would take vacations to Vermont, and on the way, we would stop and spend a day at Saratoga Racecourse. It’s a prestigious track, renowned for bringing down even the best of horses, and Secretariat was no exception (he lost to Onion there in 1973, fresh off his Triple Crown victory). It’s unfortunate that Disney’s take on this historic horse does the same.
It needs to be said that Secretariat is a “family” film, really just code for a children’s film. On that note alone, I can say that Secretariat does make for a perfectly enjoyable outing for kids and parents alike. It’s not a great film, but it’s not a bad one either. It suffers from underdevelopment in it’s character portrayal and indecision on what kind of movie it wants to be.
History will remember Secretariat as an extraordinary animal and athlete who won 16 out of 21 career races and one of 11 horses to win the Triple Crown. Secretariat faced zero obstacles in his run for greatness, he simply was the best horse who ever lived. In my opinion, this makes for a great real-life sports story, but not a very good sports movie. Secretariat reminds us of that kid in gym class who was the envy of everyone, or the lazy student who never studied but still managed to get an A on every test. It didn’t matter that Secretariat ate too much, sat back in the gate, and was the last to come out. He was the only one looking back at the finish line. In realizing this, the filmmakers decide to make up for the lack of drama by focusing on the human obstacles faced by owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). To other critics, this move makes it seem like the film ignores Secretariat as a character and instead focuses on the life and struggles of his human caretakers, much in the same way Seabiscuit did, albeit in a more successful way.
Instead of Secretariat having to overcome a race injury, illness, or stiff competition, it is Chenery who needs to battle societal norms and the men in her life to keep Secretariat running. All the horse seems to have to do is show up. I didn’t have an issue with the “lack” of character portrayal on the part of Secretariat. I am still a little unclear as to how one makes an animal, who isn’t the real Secretariat, have a “personality.” There is one scene in the film where Secretariat stubbornly neighs and stomps his hooves in defiance. It’s a cute moment that if done on a regular basis throughout the film could have really turned out cartoonish.
Both Diane Lane and John Malkovich are strong actors and they play their characters well in this film. I did find the performances a little one-note; Lane playing Chenery like the tenacious woman crusader and Malkovich…well, being Malkovich (I don’t care though, I ate his performance up with a spoon). Lane does have private moments with Secretariat that attempt to display their bond, but they are few and far between. If more time was spent deepening their relationship I think audiences would have seen more from Secretariat the horse, and more insight into Chenery as well.
Secretariat also lacks the sense of time and place of his tremendous rise to racing royalty. The only indicators we receive with regards to the era of Secretariat’s reign, are Chenery’s daughter’s “flower power” peasant shirts and political activism, and Penny’s constant battle with the established horse racing boy’s club. We know nothing of Secretariat’s grip on the American public and what his dominance meant to the world of racing at the time. In Seabiscuit the audience walks away with a great sense of the underdog conquering all during a time when the working man (and woman) were down on their luck. While this classic “underdog” story might seem formulaic and contrived, it is nonetheless the backbone of American sports movies as a genre. I do applaud Secretariat for attempting to change the genre by depicting a positive role model for young girls in a sport predominately run by men.
Secretariat was a once in a lifetime horse, who indeliable left his mark on American horseracing. Although he deserved 120 minutes of praise, his greatness can be summed up in these five minutes of splendor. Now tell me that’s not exciting! The filmmakers here just didn’t know what to do with a champion.