Thursday, October 7, 2010

'Secretariat' gallops toward inspiration

Horse and owner on the verge of history.

"It's a very good Disney movie and I enjoyed it, but we know they have to convey certain values and photogenic moments." - Penny Chenery, the woman who helped bring Secretariat to racing's Triple Crown in 1973 and who's portrayed in the movie Secretariat by Diane Lane.

There's probably no better review you can read of Secretariat than Chenery's description of the movie that centers on her character, the driving force behind turning Secretariat into a Triple Crown winner at a time when there hadn't been one in 25 years. Chenery's words, spoken to John Anderson for a New York Times Sunday story, point toward the movie's goals, which seem to be divided between inspiration and fact.

As many have noted, Secretariat's race-track triumphs aren't exactly obscure, so the movie mingles the horse's amazing accomplishments with those of its owner, a determined Colorado woman who spent considerable time away from her family in an effort to save the Virginia stable her late father (Scott Glenn) left behind.

Secretariat runs his heart out, and Chenery displays the kind of single-minded focus that's needed to achieve greatness. When her dad dies, Chenery defies her brother (Dylan Baker), an academic who thinks the best move would be to sell the business. She also goes against her husband's wishes: Dylan Walsh's Jack Tweedy hopes his wife will come to her senses and remain at home with the family's four kids.

All Secretariat - a.k.a. "Big Red" - had to do was run; Chenery -- ably played by a determined Lane -- had to overcome long odds in a male-dominated world where few were prepared to take her seriously. But Chenery learned form her dad, a man who constantly encouraged her "to run her own race," a galloping variation of a standard Hollywood bromide: Follow your dream.

John Malkovich is allowed a few personality tics in an otherwise straight-ahead presentation; he portrays trainer Lucien Laurin, the French Canadian who emerged from an uneasy retirement to take over Secretariat's development and to display the worst taste in clothes this side of any stable. The man liked plaids.

Those unfamiliar with the story of Secretariat may not know that Chenery gained possession of the horse as the result of a complicated agreement by which a coin toss determined which of two owners would get first pick of one of two offspring of Bold Ruler, the great race horse that sired Secretariat. James Cromwell's Ogden Phipps won the toss, but picked the wrong horse.

In a movie such as this, the racing footage matters, and it definitely passes muster as Secretariat emerges victorious at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and finally at the Belmont Stakes. Before any of this can happen, Tweedy must devise a novel way to finance her operation.

Director Randall Wallace, who among other achievements wrote the script for Braveheart, pretty much follows genre rules, orchestrating the story like a driver who obediently pays heed to his GPS. Surprise is less the point here than crowd-pleasing execution. But that also means Secretariat can have the pre-digested feel of a movie that's been carefully programmed to hit all the right notes.

Put another way, I'd say Secretariat's aimed more at folks who love big-screen inspiration than those who get their kicks hanging around race tracks. I'm assuming you know to which of these groups you feel more allegiance.

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