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Thursday, October 14,2010

Race to mediocrity

By Michael Phillips
There is no suspense in Secretariat.


This is the one thing Disney’s new picture has in common with The Passion of the Christ and Titanic. We know the outcome. Studios rarely back movies about horses that place or show.

The animal that loved to preen for the cameras made all the magazine covers in 1973 after running away with the Triple Crown, though in the ’73 Kentucky Derby, Secretariat was back by nine lengths before finishing like a champ. With the facts of his triumph widely known, and his symbolic rebuke to Watergate-era cynicism so happily evident, the challenge faced by the makers of Disney’s Secretariat is clear. Can triumphal heart and soul carry the day?

Certainly director Randall Wallace’s picture boasts a skilled onscreen labor force. Diane Lane stars as the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, a Denver wife and mother who won the future champ in a coin toss, and who took over the Virginia horse farm owned by her dying father (Scott Glenn). John Malkovich lets his golf outfits do the talking in the role of the eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin, no less exotic a figure to the old money horsey-set atmosphere that Penny must learn to negotiate.

As scripted by Mike Rich and revised by Wallace, essentially this is The Blind Side with a quadruped. The busy wife and mother, whose rebellious teenage daughter Kate is a chip off the old block, might be changing that horse’s life, but he’s also changing hers. Husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) might object to all the time she’s spending taking care of business, and brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) might contest some of those business decisions regarding the farm. But little occurs in Secretariat that suggests complicated human interaction, or even complicated human/equestrian interaction.

It’s a shame: Lane, in particular, is fully up to the task of portraying a three-dimensional character caught up in history in the making. The film works best in the scenes between Lane and Margo Martindale (as Miss Ham, Penny’s longtime personal assistant). In their scenes the actresses see to it that more than mere dramatic points are being scored. The rest of the film hits its marks and moves on to the next race designed to qualify for the audience’s love.

It’s tricky, this idea of a movie featuring a horse burdened with symbolism and charged with brightening an entire nation’s mood. Seabiscuit carried that burden rather better (at twice the budget, spent on depicting the prettiest little Depression you ever saw). From my lifetime, the horse movie I cherish remains Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979), which is truly special, truly inspirational, truly cinematic.

Secretariat isn’t bad, but it’s precisely what you’d expect. The story belongs to Penny. The horse has to fight for his fair share of screen time, which is another thing the movie has in common with The Blind Side: The alleged subject of the film has been sidelined so that a good actress can strut her stuff.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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