Film Review: Secretariat

A bland horse tale enlivened only by Diane Lane's committed star turn and a wily supporting performance by John Malkovich.

There have been a number of worshipful movies made about the sport of horse racing over the years, but Secretariat may be the first one to actually depict its titular thoroughbred as a divine figure. Throughout the film, Secretariat—the lightning-fast colt that made national headlines by winning the Triple Crown in 1973—is talked about in reverent tones by his trainers and owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (played by Diane Lane), but he truly seems to attain some kind of higher power in the climactic race. As he gallops around the final corner headed for the straightaway that leads to the finish line, the already busy soundtrack suddenly erupts in a soaring gospel standard and everyone in the stands gapes open-mouthed, as if they’re witnessing the Second Coming. Not since Peter Schaffer’s Equus has a horse been depicted as more of a god than an animal.

This sequence may be ridiculously over-the-top, but at least it adds a bit of personality to an otherwise wan attempt at an inspirational drama. Working from a by-the-numbers script by Mike Rich, director Randall Wallace (whose previous credits include We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask) crafts a thoroughly undistinguished movie that seeks to capitalize on whatever lingering goodwill remains from the 2003 hit film Seabiscuit. Wallace even amends the historical record to make the powerhouse Secretariat seem more like Seabiscuit, depicting him as an underdog whose initial success on the track surprised the racing world and made him a people's champion with the masses.

According to the movie’s version of events, Mrs. Tweedy was a Denver housewife who only entered into the racing business after her father’s prolonged illness kept him from being able to maintain his stables. Over the objections of her brother (Dylan Baker) and husband (Dylan Walsh), Penny took control of the operation and brought in excitable French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to oversee the racing education of her best prospect, Big Red, who would soon be rechristened as Secretariat.

Much of the first half of Secretariat is given over to Penny’s attempts to balance her new career—one in which she regularly runs up against the prevailing sexist attitudes in the male-dominated racing industry—with her busy home life, where she strives to please a husband who’s not entirely on board with her decision as well as a brood of four kids headed up by a rebellious teenager daughter. This material is straight out of a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but damned if Lane doesn’t play it with a convincing amount of feeling. Even when forced to deliver the clunkiest dialogue this side of a George Lucas screenplay, the actress takes her role seriously.

On the opposite end of the spectrum (as usual) stands Malkovich, who steadfastly refuses to play a scene straight. Flouncing about in a series of brightly colored outfits and intoning every line with an impish grin, he seems to be consciously mocking his own screen persona, to say nothing of the movie he’s appearing in. In another film, his clowning would be a distraction—here, though, it’s a welcome respite from the tedium.

Once Secretariat takes to the track, the humans recede into the background and the film settles into a series of repetitive racing sequences. Although Wallace is able to generate some flashes of tension in these scenes, the intrusive score and choppy cutting rob them of any real dramatic impact. (The director’s attempts to give the title character a distinguishable personality through first-person—or should that be first-horse?—point-of-view shots and lingering glances at his human owners are laughable as well.) Secretariat may have been a champion in real life, but his biopic is purely third-rate.

Editor's note: This review was revised on October 7 in light of online comments that Ethan Alter's description of Secretariat's "underdog" status does not reflect the real story. Ethan now makes the distinction that his observations are based on the filmmakers' portrayal of Secretariat and not the historical record.