The Brock Talk

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Let Facts Get In The Way of Secretariat's Truth

Hollywood’s Secretariat, recently released by Disney Studios, has all of the little factual hiccups that horse racing fans will notice but soon forget as the movie tells the remarkable story of what many consider to be the best thoroughbred race horse of all time. Based on the true story of then Colorado housewife Penny Chenery-Tweedy (Diane Lane), who assumed responsibility of her ailing father’s (Scott Glenn) Virginia-based farm Meadow Stable, the movie tells the story of Secretariat very well from the famous coin toss, to his first steps as a foal, training and racing through the Triple Crown.

One might not expect much drama from a movie where everybody knows the ending, but it’s the journey to the end that makes this movie so enjoyable. Lane remarkably portrays Chenery’s struggles against the male dominated world of horse racing and the conservative members of her own family including her husband Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) and brother Hollis Chenery (Dylan Baker). On her mission to save the family farm and keep Secretariat, Chenery aligns with trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), Meadow Stables’ longtime secretary Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale), groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and jockey Ron Turcotte, (played by real jockey Otto Thorwarth).

It is a movie that will gnaw at the side of horse racing purist with a few creative liberties taken by director Randall Wallace, the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated screenwriter of the global hit “Braveheart,” but the acting, direction, cinematography and screen play by Mike Rich will quickly overcome any and all of that. Technically, the movie is “suggested” by the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack. In the movie, Nack is smartly played by Kevin Connally of Entourage fame alongside Eric Lange as Andy Beyer.

Wallace has made it clear that he did not want to create a documentary. Rather he wants to introduce or re-introduce the audience, “to the deeper truth of what Secretariat and Penny accomplished,” he said in final production notes. That goal is clearly achieved with the obstacles set by husband Jack; brother Hollis; Ogen Phipps (James Cromwell); Sham and his bravado trainer, Frank “Pancho” Martin (Nestor Serrano).

Some battles accentuate Chenery’s strength in many confrontational scenes where she takes on everyone from the family trainer, to Turcotte, to Phipps-more throughout the movie. Lane is masterful in portraying Chenery’s cleverness during the pre-race press conferences and Rich’s screenplay is on target in portraying the horsemanship she had learned from her father that gave her the conviction place such a gamble on a horse. The most subtle aspects of Lane’s performance is perhaps the most important, as her character was elogent, intelligent and classy in nearly every scene.

I was a little disappointed the Belmont scene did not really portray his true dominance in that race, but the cinematography crew had their shining moment here with an isolation head-on shot that is sure to make you stop chewing you popcorn. Wallace creatively uses the actual television broadcast footage of the Preakness and brilliantly seemed to inter-disperse original audio from NRA track announcer Chick Anderson with a talent that sounded eerily similar.

Laurin and Mrs. Ham provide the needed Disney levity with well played slap stick moments centered around Laurin faults in men’s style – in particular, the hats. Malkovich is brilliant throughout playing a lighter and more vulnerable character in Laurin who you laugh at and not with. And two thumbs to Thorwarth. His riding ability was an obvious plus and he was very believable as a cantankerous but tactful Turcotte.

I must disclose that I can’t watch the original Secretariat Belmont Stakes footage without tearing up before they go four furlongs. One of my favorite moments in racing came discussing the Belmont Stakes with Ron Turcotte and asking what he looking at over his left shoulder in the famous finish line shot. “I’m looking at the timer on the tote-board” Turcotte told me. “I’m like everyone else. I can’t wait to see how fast Big Red was going.”

I was 13 when Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973 and I was a veteran of four Kentucky Derbies via the 1973 miracle of Jack Whitacker, Hayward Heybrown, et. al. and CBS Sports. So I was pretty much sold on the story before I walked into the theater. But this film sold me on the rest. And really, Diane Lane, John Malkovich and Secretariat are all you need to know as motivation to see this film.

Secretariat is a typical family feel good Disney movie. But it really is a well done film and exciting tribute to Secretariat and Mrs. Chenery.


Unknown said...

Going to see this one for sure. Thanks Brock.

John Califano said...

Beautiful review, Brock. I to was moved by the performances of Diane Lane and John Malkovich. They were very convincing, loveable, and sincere in their characterizations of Penny and Lucien respectively.

When I got to the theater, I went with the attitude of seeing the movie, trying to keep an open mind, and then being able to say, "I saw it" on opening day. But with the opening scene, I knew I wasn't there just to watch the film. I was there to experience it. I was very moved, until the very last scene.

Whatever factual deficiencies there might have been, didn't bother me a bit. What bothered me was the song "Oh Happy Day" played during what should have been the climatic scene of a movie which up to that point possessed much power. The music was very out of place and it took all the air out of my balloon. Ready to use my tissue to wipe away tears of awe of joy, I found I didn't need it.

Having said this, I do think the film will be a big success, and I have yet to meet more than one or two people who were disappointed; so my own sense of disappointment at the closing scene doesn't matter either. If people go, are moved by the movie, perhaps get 'turned on' to racing, or at least develop a better appreciation and awareness for the sport, or become interested in learning more about the great Secretariat, the movie will certainly have done its job.

darlaflack said...

I haven't seen it yet lol (live in a town with No Movie Theatre), but I have tears just reading your review of it!

Immortalmortal said...

I was all of 1 year and 4 months old, to the date that Secretariat on the triple crown. I've been hooked on the ponies since. True it's not the most accurate story. What by Disney ever is? But it is still a good movie about a great horse.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review! I just saw it last night and my first reaction as soon as the credits began to roll was: "Finally, a horse racing movie that does the sport justice!".
Diane Lane was simply superb, she was absolutely convincing in her role and Penny and the racing scenes were shot with such "thundering" excitement that I was getting tingles up and down my spine.
The only part that was a big disappointment was in the Belmont when they played that song. A nice song but not fitting at all for his stretch drive.
Overall I thought Disney did an outstanding job, bravo and may more come!! :) said...

Great Review, Brock! Can't wait to go see this movie!

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