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Secretariat (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time

OK for children.

While the last major film about a legendary horse, Seabiscuit (2003), was the story of the horse, concentrating on Seabiscuit’s quirky personality, this is really the story of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and her fight on behalf of her horse, Secretariat.

When Penny’s father dies she and her brother have to take over the horse farm. Against the urgings of both her brother and her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh), she takes over the farm and fights to keep a young colt she really likes, eventually named Secretariat. She was a woman standing alone in a man’s world with odds distinctly against her. Had Secretariat not won the triple crown, what she did would have been considered quixotic in retrospect. Even though everyone knows the outcome, Lane gives such a commanding performance that she captures the uncertainty and risk of the path Chenery pursued

One big mistake, at least from my point of view, is that director Randall Wallace went “Hollywood” in showing the three Triple Crown races. Wallace uses phony Hollywood recreations for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, with close-ups of the jockey on the horse. For the Preakness, he uses archival films as the race is shown through the conceit of people watching it on television, certainly not the best way to show the race in the movie.

Wallace mercifully doesn’t show Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) going overboard telling his jockey, Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), how to run the race, a mistake that detracted from Seabiscuit. I understand that Laurin was nothing like the flamboyant character represented by Malkovich. But when you’ve got a talent like Malkovich, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of his talent, and Wallace is no fool. As usual, Malkovich’s performance glitters.

The film concentrates on a rivalry between the owners of Secretariat (the Chenerys and the syndicate they put together to finance the talented colt) and Sham (Father and son Ogden Phipps, James Cromwell and Scott Glen, respectively) even implying that Sham won the Wood Memorial a couple of weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Whether the confrontations Wallace stages between the owners actually happened or not, they are gratifyingly cinematic the way Wallace stages them.

As to the 1973 Wood Memorial, Angle Light (also trained by Laurin) beat both Secretariat and Sham (Secretariat finishing third). But since Sham finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, concentrating on Sham makes sense, especially since Angle Light finished 10th in the Derby and didn’t race in the other two. But to give credit to Sham, he was injured at the start of the Derby, losing two teeth in the starting gate and bleeding throughout the race, still losing by only 2 ½ lengths. Even so, Secretariat ran an astonishing race, running each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. The successive quarter-mile times were 25 1/5, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5, and 23, for a total time of 1:59 2/5, becoming the first horse to run the race in under 2 minutes.

What really disappointed me, though, was the way Wallace showed the Belmont Stakes, a 1 ½ mile true test of endurance. Nobody who saw this race will ever forget it, and I remember it clearly. Since Secretariat generally came from behind, it was a shock when he broke on top. Sham’s jockey, Lafitte Pincay, had been instructed to stay with Secretariat throughout the race and they raced together down the backstretch. Then Secretariat just blew everyone away, winning by 31 lengths. This is where Wallace made a big mistake, which detracted greatly from the movie for me. Instead of showing Secretariat’s positions vis-à-vis the other horses, he shows Secretariat running down the stretch alone. I remember the race on TV and the camera pulled back to show the following horses and how far Secretariat was ahead. That shot was mind-boggling, but it’s missing from the movie. Sham finished last as Pincay eased up on the exhausted horse. Secretariat’s time of 2.24 is still a record for a dirt track.

That’s my take. To give another point of view from a professional, here’s what cinematographer and former NFL Films cameraman Chuck Cohen, who, before he became a Director of Photography for motion pictures had 3 Olympics games, a half dozen World Series, a dozen NBA Finals and countless other non NFL related sports events in the country and around the world to his credit, told me about the way the races were presented:

The way they showed the Derby and Belmont was amazing. It is, after all, a movie, not a documentary. So as a movie they needed to re create the races just like I re created real football action in Any Given Sunday and all the rest that I shot. Their recreations were first rate. The camera angles were incredible. The DP used the Olympus still cameras shooting HD video footage for all the race close-ups and unique and mind blowing angles.  Fantastic! 

As for the Belmont coverage, the director did have that one "master angle" shot where you saw the two horses so far ahead of the other 3 on the opposite side of track. Then he cut to the CU's (close ups) to see the magnificence and power of the horses and how the jockeys interacted briefly. Then Secretariat pulled away...waiting for the great horse to come around that final turn the DP used the long lens to show the incredible speed, power, and brilliance of that horse. At that point it wasn't about the race as much as it was about The Horse. As a filmmaker and DP I loved that shot and its purpose...hearing the announcer call out the lengths ahead was enough for me, as I wanted that focus on the horse. Secretariat was truly and without a doubt the greatest horse we will ever see in our lifetime and the filmmakers gave him the due he deserves!

All the acting is good, especially Lane and Malkovich, who carry the film. Since the story is about Lane’s character, the film lives or dies with her performance, and she nails it. Lane + Malkovich + Secretariat is 2010’s triple crown.