PG for brief mild language, 116 minutes
Feel-good "Secretariat" emerges a winner
If you're looking a feel-good sports movie based on a true story, Disney's enjoyable, winning "Secretariat" leads the pack by a few lengths. Telling the true story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner and its owner Penny Chenery, "Secretariat" is a slick, manipulative film if there ever was one and unsurprisingly takes considerable liberties with the actual story. But with a strong turn from the luminous Diane Lane as Chenery and an uplifting-against-the-odds true story, this is a crowd-pleaser you're rooting for from the get-go.
Lane is Chenery, part of a horse-breeding family from Virginia. When her mother dies and her father Christopher (Scott Glenn) becomes ill, she is encouraged by her brother (Dylan Baker) to sell the farm and the horses, which have been losing money for several years. Instead, Penny decides to manage the farm herself and at the encouraging of a family friend (Fred Thompson) hires an unorthodox trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train their new racehorse, Secretariat, or as many called him, Big Red. Faced with heavy taxes and the loss of the family business, Chenery bets the farm and then some that her beloved Secretariat will emerge a Triple Crown winner.
If you know the real story of this famous horse, then you already know that Secretariat emerged a big winner, and so does the entertaining, engaging movie "Secretariat." Directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote "Braveheart" and "We Were Soldiers," it's a slick, well-made Disney package that should have no trouble finding an audience and it also helps having the lovely Lane in the lead, who shines as the strong, determined horse owner. The film is loosely based on sports-writer William Nack's (portrayed in the film by "Entourage's" Kevin Connolly) book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion," though it takes considerable liberties with the real story, the details of which vary widely from the story portrayed here.
Still, there's much to enjoy with "Secretariat," and not just the pretty horse (played by several horses, actually) and the beautiful Lane. Malkovich is a big ham as the trainer with the loud clothing, and speaking of ham, it's nice seeing James Cromwell ("Babe") as a rich guy who nearly buys up Secretariat. But the most memorable turn comes from Texas character actress Margo Martindale ("Million Dollar Baby"), who steals every scene she's in as Chenery's wise-cracking and wise secretary named Miss Ham (yes, her real name) credited with naming Secretariat (listen closely, she has the film's best line in her witty reply to a competitor).
Most important, it all matters how you finish, and "Secretariat" will have you cheering by the time Secretariat completes the big win (a huge win, if you know anything about what actually happened) at the final leg of the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes. Sure, the playing of the gospel hit "O Happy Day" is a heavy-handed bit (we get it, it was a glorious day!), but don't underestimate the importance of Secretariat's place in history. Also, watch closely and you'll see the the real Chenery (who's still living at age 88), in a cameo in the film's climactic race scene.
You may already know this (spoiler alert!), but Secretariat wins the big race. And "Secretariat" the movie comes out a winner too. An enjoyable, uplifting crowd-pleaser.