Judge Erich Asperschlager dedicates this review to Fabio Arguello Jr.
"When I went off to college, I felt like that colt. Full of promise. Full of adventure, like I could make something work. I gave up a career to have our family, and this colt is part of our family now. I just want to see him run."
In 2004, Mayhem Pictures and Walt Disney brought Miracle to the big screen. It's an uplifting movie about two things Americans care relatively little about: hockey and the Winter Olympics. That film was a rousing success, so full of rah-rah patriotism and underdog charm that it doesn't matter that the thrilling win over the Soviets at the end of the movie wasn't even for a gold medal (that came two days later, against Finland). Seemingly uninterested in taking the easy road, they go for an even bigger trick with Secretariat, an underdog sports movie that's not only about the less-popular horse racing, but whose title character isn't even an underdog.
Facts of the Case
Hoping to save her family's legacy after the death of her mother in 1969, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane, Under the Tuscan Sun) took on a seemingly impossible goal. She bet her father's horse farm, her family, and their fortune, on an untested colt they nicknamed "Red," but who went down in racing history under the name "Secretariat." Against all odds, Penny entered the male-dominated horse racing world, hiring a fading trainer (John Malkovitch, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and an outcast jockey (real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth) to help her turn the dream of winning the Triple Crown into a reality.
Secretariat won the coveted Triple Crown in 1973—taking first place in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. At the time, he was the first horse to do so in twenty-five years, and one of only three to win the Crown in the last 37 years. During his run, he became a media darling, appearing on big name magazine covers. While his last race was expected to be a nail-biter, Secretariat made it look easy, winning by a record-shattering 31 lengths. It's an exciting story, but hardly an edge of your seat movie drama.
Secretariat creates tension by making its human star the underdog. As played by Diane Lane, Penny Chenery Tweedy is shown as a pillar of feminist strength. After the death of her mother, Penny goes from Denver housewife to Virginia horse mistress, fulfilling the dreams she had for herself before family life took over (as it seems to have done for most '60s-era movie housewives). With an ailing father (Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs), simpering brother (Dylan Baker, Spider-Man 2), unsupportive husband (Dylan Walsh, Nip/Tuck), and the family farm on the line, Penny gathers her inner strength and makes a series of bold moves that end with the horse that no one else wanted winning the most coveted honor in racing.
In reality, Chenery and her story are both remarkable. Her strong-headed determination made Secretariat's legacy possible. In reality, however, that determination probably wasn't the clear-cut victory we see in the movie version. Putting your family on the backburner to chase a childhood dream is complicated, even when that dream is realized. This film plays those family tensions for light drama that seems to evaporate once Secretariat starts winning.
This is a Disney-fied version of Chenery's story. The locations and basic facts might be accurate, but everything else feels like it was conceived in a studio conference room. Secretariat takes place during the early '70s; we know that because Penny's daughter is a high school hippie who protests the war with off-the-rack peace signs. John Malkovitch—who turns in a solid performance as oddball trainer Lucien Laurin—is supposed to be from Quebec; we know that because he occasionally throws in some French. Character interactions are filled with the kind of revelations and epiphanies that usually come once or twice in a lifetime, but here come once or twice a minute.
Secretariat manufactures tension—with Penny's family and farm on the line, and a subplot about Secretariat's rival, a horse called Sham, and his nasty trainer. Screenwriter Mike Rich hedges his bets with heavy-handed drama, seemingly convinced that without everything at risk, all the time, the audience won't care. It's too bad because the real story doesn't need embellishing. Adversity is great for movies, but why can't Hollywood embrace the idea of a champion who just happens to be really, really good? He may have been underestimated because of the shortcomings of his father, but Secretariat was built to run. He was strong and fast, and, as an eventual autopsy showed, his heart was about two and a half times the size of a normal horse.
This film is at its best during the re-creations of Secretariat's big races at Aqueduct, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. It's visceral filmmaking that gives us an intimate view of a sport normally viewed from a distance. Up close, we see the speed and danger involved in these massive beasts and their jockeys going full bore from starting gate to finish line.
The racing sequences also provide a solid showcase for the film's Blu-ray presentation, from the pockmarked dirt tracks and colorful silks to the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which thunders with hoofbeats and the roar of the crowd. At its best, the 1080p 2.35:1 transfer is rich with period detail, but the quality is inconsistent. Most scenes are sharp and well-lit, but others are too soft, or shot in such a way that shadows are too dark or lights too bright, killing fine detail at both ends of the spectrum.
Secretariat comes with a decent selection of bonus features, in high-definition. that take viewers deeper into the real story. While most of the extras are Blu-ray exclusives, a handful are duplicated on the DVD (albeit in standard definition):
• Deleted Scenes
• "Heart of a Champion"
• Music Video for AJ Michalka's "It's Who You Are"
The rest of the bonus features are Blu-ray exclusive:
• Audio Commentary by Director Randall Wallace
• "Choreographing the Races"
• "A Director's Inspiration: A Conversation With The Real
• "Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation"
Even with the melodrama and thin supporting characters, Secretariat is a solid, occasionally thrilling family film. Other films have handled the woman-in-a-man's-world subject matter better, but Diane Lane is a powerful enough screen presence to make you root for Penny Chenery and her legendary horse. Secretariat's story isn't the "impossible" underdog victory the movie tagline promises, but it doesn't have to be. We already know the horse is going to win; the fun is getting to see just how impressive that victory is.
This Blu-ray combo pack isn't a champion thoroughbred, but fans of the movie will want to add it to their stable. Not guilty!
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