Friday, October 8, 2010

Secretariat: Merely a trot

Secretariat (2010) • View trailer for Secretariat
3.5 stars (out of five) • Rated PG
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.08.10
Buy DVD: Secretariat • Buy Blu-Ray: Secretariat [Blu-ray]

Secretariat's place in horse-racing history remains the stuff of legend, and perhaps the only true surprise revolving around this inspirational drama concerns why almost four decades passed before it was filmed.

The bare-bones details are amazing, both as they relate to Secretariat himself  the champion with the disconcerting habit of charging last out of the starting gate, as if delighted by the chance to tease all the hopeful punters  and to Penny Chenery Tweedy, the "Denver housewife" who took such massive financial risks in order to nurture the four-legged friend she so strongly believed in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane, left), Miss Ham
(Margo Martindale) and trainer Lucien Laurin (John
Malkovich) watch nervously as Secretariat approaches
the starting gate; a lot rides on this race, not the least
of which is Penny's ability to save the family farm.
Gosh, it's a Disney film; whaddya think is gonna happen?
And, no question, this film's third act builds viewers into a state of nervous anticipation, even though the outcome is well known all these years later. Real-world horses don't become cinema stars unless they've done something pretty extraordinary, so only very young viewers are apt to wonder whether Secretariat really will win the fabled Triple Crown.

The race footage hits all the right notes, and it's certainly OK if you want to cheer; director Randall Wallace obviously intends just such a reaction.

But that manipulative touch gets a bit irritating, as well. Wallace's film bears the stamp of the hyper-sanitized Disney corporate approach, and all the elements are just a bit too exaggerated. Diane Lane's performance as Penny makes the woman just this side of angelic; John Malkovich's handling of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin tries too hard for eccentric comic relief; Penny's prickly issues with her husband (Dylan Walsh, as Jack) and brother (Dylan Baker, as Hollis)  neither of whom supports her risk-taking madness  miraculously vanish just in time for the final race.

Wallace's handling of Penny's home life is particularly sloppy. At one point, it frankly feels as though Penny and Jack are heading for a divorce; we even get a reaction shot of their elder daughter, Kate (Amanda Michalka), looking worried as she eavesdrops on her parents late one night, with a gloomy snowfall amplifying the mood.

Not to worry, though; nothing ever comes of this suggestion of marital discord. Or let's put it this way: Jack manfully buries his concerns just in time for the obligatory triumphant hug.

All right, fine; it would be nice if life could work out that way.

Secretariat is scripted by Mike Rich, adapting William Nack's book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. Rich has developed a solid roster of uplifting underdog-ish stories, often connected to the sports world; his previous films include Finding Forrester, The Rookie  engaging baseball tale, that one  and Radio.

Rich's tone and approach are heartfelt, and he has a sure touch with crowd-pleasing material. But his previous efforts have paid closer attention to relationship dynamics, and his characters haven't been such stereotypes. He also hasn't been guilty of the overwrought touches that occasionally plague Secretariat, most particularly Lane's forcefully stirring narrative voice-overs at the film's beginning and conclusion.

Believe me, it's impossible not to be impressed by this story; we don't need biblical quotes to further pound the message home.

I'm more inclined to blame Wallace for that sort of overstatement; this is the writer-turned-occasional-director who parlayed his Academy Award-nominated script for Braveheart into a license for bombastic melodrama. Wallace wrote 2001's Pearl Harbor, which pretty much says it all.

The story begins as Penny learns of her mother's death, which brings the entire Tweedy family  two teenage girls, two adolescent boys  to Virginia's Meadow Stables, which until recently have been managed with a firm and knowing hand by Penny's father, Christopher (Scott Glenn). Things have slid a bit, and the enterprise is in financial distress; Jack and Hollis are in favor of selling everything and recouping what they can.

But Penny can't do that to her father, who slides in and out of mild dementia. A few flashback scenes establish the degree to which Christopher taught his daughter to stand up for what she believes in, and seize the dream; she therefore pins all her hopes on an unborn foal.

Christopher has struck an unusual deal with wealthy horse owner and breeder Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell): A coin toss will determine who gets first pick of two foals produced by Phipps' stallion, Bold Ruler, and Chenery's two mares, Hasty Matilda and Somethingroyal. Phipps and Chenery have made such deals before, and Phipps  played with laser-eyed, aristocratic precision by Cromwell  always wins the coin toss.

The same thing happens this time, with Penny standing in for her father: Phipps wins the toss and makes "the obvious choice" ... but Penny, we're given to understand, has the horse sense to perceive that she actually gets the better end of the bargain.

Her "sloppy seconds" foal stands immediately after being born: a rare and marvelous thing. The growing horse is dubbed Big Red, and his size and speed persuade Laurin to sign on as trainer. He, in turn, suggests that Penny hire jockey Ron Turcotte, who proves the perfect rider for the perfect horse.

Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth, which explains why he's the one character who feels absolutely authentic in this film. Thorwarth nails the complicated relationship that exists between jockey and owner: Turcotte is always appropriately deferential, but we can see, in his eyes, that he lives and breathes horses to a degree that no mere 'civilian' can understand or match.

The primary players are rounded out by Miss Ham, the Chenery family's longtime assistant, played by the always reliable Margo Martindale. Where Malkovich projects every scene to the back balcony, Martindale understands the greater power of sly subtlety; she gets more mileage from sidelong glances and quietly snide remarks than Malkovich does with his garishly unmatched clothing and French temper tantrums. (Laurin is French-Canadian.)

Big Red grows into a polished stallion; he gets the "official" name of Secretariat for racing purposes. He does well, early on, which only increases Jack and Hollis' desire to cash out, while the money's good. Yet another family crisis lends weight to their insistence, but Penny refuses to be bullied.

On the one hand, it's easy to understand Jack's point of view: He suddenly has little more than a part-time wife who constantly flies back and forth to Virginia. She seems more concerned with 'being there' for the horse, than she does for her husband or children.

On the other hand, the manner in which Jack and Hollis side against Penny seems clandestine and cowardly, and it's difficult to believe that she'd ever forgive either one of them. But Rich and Wallace simply don't explore such real-world problems, except to suggest that everybody kisses and makes up in scenes we never see.

We do see, at one point, how all this costs Penny; Lane persuasively dissolves into tears while "sharing" Kate's appearance in a play ... long-distance, over a telephone connection. This one time, we're reminded that Lane has genuine acting chops; the rest of the time, we too frequently watch Diane Lane reading lines, as opposed to feeling Penny Chenery Tweedy actually speaking and living them.

Three of the Tweedy children are little more than afterthoughts; Kate's the only one who gets any serious face time, no doubt because she's played by Michalka, a longtime Disney child star and pop sensation who's the younger half of the sister act Aly and AJ.

We therefore get some sidebar issues as Kate explores her inner hippy rebel (we're in the early 1970s, remember). But while the script gives minor lip service to the suggestion that Jack is less than happy with his eldest child's lefty tendencies, Rich's script once again refuses to bring any gravitas to this subplot. It's simply an excuse to put Michalka in flower-power clothes and a headband.

At times, one gets the impression that Wallace has shaded his film to showcase Lane in the same light that brought Sandra Bullock an Oscar for The Blind Side. The stories are similar; Lane resolutely defends her horse the same way Bullock championed her adopted son.

And, in fairness, Secretariat is engaging, heartwarming and appropriately triumphant: a perfectly suitable family night out at the movies.

But Wallace's film would be a lot more emotionally powerful if every cast member were as credible as Turcotte's feisty little jockey.

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