The horse movie tends to be an infallible genre. Its appeals to the young and old, male and female demographics, meaning a potentially huge profit. In Walt Disney’s “Secretariat,” however, the mass appeal is so accessible, it comes off as pedestrian.
The story revolves around Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) whose father, Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn), built a horse-breeding empire from scratch. Chris is senile, so when Penny’s mother dies, she must take over the business.
After Chris’ death, Penny has a $6 million inheritance tax to deal with as a part of settling his estate. Rather than selling their horses to pay the debt, she chooses to train and race a new colt, Secretariat, against her husband and brother’s advice.
The film, a true story, is rough in almost all technical respects, but especially in its strange, forced camera movements and choppy editing. Acting-wise, John Malkovich gives a brilliant performance as Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, but is overshadowed by the jarring and unnecessary costume choice to have him don a new fedora in each scene.
Only in the film’s horse races does the movie convey some semblance of balance. It doesn’t spoil anything to disclose Secretariat wins all but one of his races. But there is no suspension of disbelief here. At the start of each scene, it’s easy to see where things are headed, especially since it’s a true story.
When Penny wants to hire a jockey known for riding the horses too hard, for example, it’s easy to guess how the scene will play out. She’s tough, he’s arrogant; then Penny admits, “I want you because you’re the best,” and he agrees to work for her.
Lane plays the “woman who has it all,” never fazed by the stress of managing a business or spending months away from her family. She breaks down in one scene, but the image doesn’t linger. Her performance rings true as an ideal woman.
The movie does feature beautiful shots of the horses, but the human characters take secondary priority, as they come and go arbitrarily. Family friend Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson) seems to exist only to be quietly killed off early on.
The scenes feel labored and slow. Instead of a fast editing style, the movie takes too much time explaining every minuscule detail rather than focusing and developing any dramatic climax. It’s closer to a Hallmark TV presentation than feature film: insignificant scenes remain, like when Penny’s daughter overhears a fight between her parents that never goes anywhere, and dramatic peaks are sanded down.
The tedium partially stems from poor timing. The story takes place over four years and feels like a series of History Channel re-enactments: two nearly identical horse racing scenes appear side by side out of the six total.
Several arrhythmic pans and cuts reveal the editor’s indecisiveness when it comes to the film’s shots. While there are no new innovations, it does fulfill one family-friendly convention — a happy ending. Because the film focuses so intently on the details, though, the dramatic climax is lost. Movies aren’t supposed to be this realistic. When they are, like in “Secretariat,” they’re just bland.
“Secretariat” was written by William Nack and Mike Rich and directed by Randall Wallace.