Not exactly a movie about sex, nor a National Geographic reproductive romance, but certainly about studs, Randall Wallace’s Secretariat doesn’t horse around when inferring that mares matter most, whether of steed or human variety. A beast biopic revisiting the unlikely historic triumph of racehorse Secretariat, alias Big Red in grabbing the rare 1973 Triple Crown glory on the racetrack, the movie also factors in the parallel story of his owner, an otherwise unassuming housewife who dared to infiltrate the macho world of horse racing, and triumph in her own right as well.
Diane Lane takes the metaphorical reins by default in Secretariat as Penny Chenery Tweedy, a conventional middle aged mother of four (in reality she was a brainy elite Smith College grad) who reluctantly assumes an additional burden of managing her parents’ Virginia horse breeding stable, following the death of her mother. Penny also develops a protective maternal instinct towards the horses, when she suspects that competing breeders are taking advantage of her increasingly physically incapacitated father. At the same time, she hits on the notion that maternal DNA is key to breeding champion racehorses, and not simply stud assets.
Eventually joining Penny as an eccentric team mocked by the contemptuous males only jock racing culture around her, is cranky Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a French Canadian temperamental trainer and provocative-in-pastels clothes horse, no pun, along with her father’s fretting secretary strictly on the sidelines, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale). And the rest, of course, is history.
A retro-venture with rather standard storytelling more suited to the small screen, Secretariat excels at capturing some intimate emotional moments primarily to the credit of its performers, including the attention grabbing (uncredited) racehorse. But the movie lacks a greater epic scope, stagnating when it comes to any vigorous sense of the stereotypical when not generic surrounding culture and historical moment. And its concurrent 20th century anti-war, emerging women’s movement, anti-establishment thrust, trivialized as rebel youth mostly into dressing up seemingly for Halloween. And relegated to the margins in this movie, even if mirroring Penny’s own life journey. While gambling and its troubling social repercussions and destroyed lives which are central to the horse racing sport, are invisible here.
And along with The Social Network, Secretariat seems to be a far from humble case of capitalism coming out of the closet in movies, as triumph translates into the unabashed glorification of money in the millions as the ultimate award. Indeed, of nearly religious proportions. Did I mention that Secretariat’s final winning race plays out brashly to the tune of gospel Jesus music, via The Eddie Hawkins Singers’ 1967 ‘Oh Happy Day’ on the soundtrack? Oh lord…
Walt Disney Pictures