“Secretariat” has a challenging journey ahead of it, released relatively soon after the 2003 racehorse picture, “Seabiscuit.” Without much in the way of controversial elements or a suspenseful conclusion, “Secretariat” feels like a nonstarter, though it’s handsomely mounted by director Randall Wallace. It’s simply a slice of cinematic apple pie, handed a firm inspirational Disney scrubbing and sent out void of a personality. I can’t fault a film for comfort food aspirations, but this tale of horseracing’s greatest champion doesn’t breathe enough fire to make a lasting impression.
After the death of her mother, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) returns to the family horse farm in Virginia looking to visit her infirmed father (Scott Glenn). While seeking emotional closure, Penny instead finds the estate near ruin, and takes on the responsibility of restoring the family name through a prized colt nicknamed Big Red. Slowly turning away from her domestic commitments to raise a thoroughbred, Penny is faced with troublesome disapproval from her husband (Dylan Walsh), while trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) offers unique bluster to keep everyone on edge. No matter the storm around her, Penny remains committed to Big Red, who joins the racing circuit as “Secretariat,” taking the sport by storm with his amazing speed and heart.
“Secretariat” is obviously constructed to be a crowd-pleaser, and I won’t begrudge its quest for broadness when dealing with the subject of an underdog horse and its underappreciated owner. These are time-tested elements, put to good use by Wallace, who assembles a brisk sporting film worthy of a few cheers and laughs. “Secretariat” has a select number of highlights worth savoring, most tied to the efforts of the cast, who bring to life a story that primarily takes place inside the head of a horse. The humans are merely melodramatic asides, but they make it work, with special attention paid to Lane, who instills Penny with a mighty brawn in the face of reflexive gender discrimination, selling the stuffing out of chewy lines handed to her by screenwriter Mike Rich, a veteran of the genre, previously scripting “Radio” and “The Rookie.”
Passion isn’t a problem for “Secretariat,” but dimension is. Ostensibly a tale of Penny’s efforts to turn Big Red into a major force on the scene as a way to pay tribute to her family, the screenplay shortchanges the character, sprinting away from the true price of her commitment the first chance it gets. The way the film is assembled now, Penny all but abandons her clan to chase the horse dream, but little is explored during this time, outside of a few huffy-puffy moments from her husband and some growing pains from the kids. Wallace doesn’t manage the passing of time, and it hurts the film the further Penny steps away from her suburban obligation. Had there been more of an effort to explore the character’s struggle with gender politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, Penny’s growing isolation might’ve made some sense. As it plays in the movie, sympathies remain with the family, who pay a very unnerving price for Penny’s determination. Sure, she’s smashing a few gender barriers, but ignoring her household in the process shows aloofness I’m sure the script never intended to create.
Also of some annoyance is the cinematography, which captures a period film with smeary HD cameras, cracking the historical veneer. Wallace pushes his luck further when Secretariat hits the track, busting out a crude commercial-grade camera to seize some type of “horse sense.” It’s a superfluous, gimmicky visual mistake that dials down the suspense of the racing sequences, attempting to find a naturalistic oneness with the horse in a film that doesn’t need the intimacy.
The period particulars are well cared for in the AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation, which offers a comfortable look at set design touches and outdoor splendor, as the film “travels” to several states. Race sequences also pop with texture, capturing the animal instincts and human exertion, with viewers able to search the stands to study the growing excitement. Colors are quite vivid, with triumphant blues and greens selling the professional and rural excursions, also bringing out the bigness of the costumes and hair. Skintones are hot, with faces coming off pink and alert, which plays into the time frame of the picture. Interestingly, this presentation also reveals the photographic limits of Lane’s wigs, which can be a little distracting at times.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix brings serious gallop to your home theater experience. The horse race sequences are clearly the big show of the disc, with intricate layers of sounds superbly rendered here to envelop the listener with a feeling of suspense and animal drive. Low-end punches along, keeping up with equine matters. Directionals are hearty, boosting the feeling of speed and might, while atmospherics are equally as kind, providing a solid kick of dimensional crowd responses and rural tranquility. Scoring is light, but works up a mood when called upon, hanging out in the rear of the mix to support the drama. Dialogue is always clear and direct, holding to arguments and intimacy without fail. DVS, French, and Spanish tracks are also included.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Randall Wallace is a little off-putting at first, with the filmmaker whispering his thoughts deep into the microphone, as if lying secretly under a blanket in his bed. It becomes clear Wallace is deeply concerned with intimacy, conveying his intent to bring the audience into this world, seeking to remove the spectator elements. Wallace is passionate about his picture, cooing his approval of the technical challenges conquered and the cast, a group offered major praise throughout the conversation. Hearing the trials of storytelling construction is of primary interest here, as Wallace discusses his choices to reinforce the humanity of the piece when the horse business ate up too much screen time.
“Heart of a Champion” (14:56) is a featurette devoted to the star of the show, with the real-life figures in Secretariat’s life chatting up their experience with the horse, supported by archive footage of notable races. Cast and crew soon join the celebration, communicating their sense of awe.
“Choreographing the Races” (6:27) showcases the efforts from the five horses chosen to play Secretariat, overseen by wrangler Rusty Hendrickson. Realism is key here, with Wallace piecing together the races carefully to retain the authenticity of the sport and Secretariat’s achievements, along with providing a sense of involvement as tiny cameras were employed to capture the rush of movement.
“A Director’s Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery” (21:12) plops Wallace and the subject on a couch to recall the “truth” of Secretariat, discussing the history of the horse and Chenery’s fractured domestic life.
“Deleted Scenes” (10:30) provide an alternate opening, a sense of Chenery history, a jockey introduction, an extended scene of golfing comedy with Lucien, and a renewal of the domestic discord between Penny and her husband. They can be viewed with or without commentary from Wallace.
“It’s Who You Are” (4:02) is a music video from A.J. Michalka.
“Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation” is a bizarre collection of brief featurettes, corralling the experiences of those who were there to witness Secretariat’s original glory, while also having the group comment on crudely animated recreations of famous races.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
“Secretariat” is good-natured enough, but far from substantial, spending far too much time playing up the horse’s mystique (cue slow motion and thunderclaps), and not enough on the gritty particulars of the human characters. It’s rarely dull, but consistently baffling.