by Tim Ross
The promotional tagline for “Secretariat” reads “The impossible true story.” If you didn’t know that most all of the events in the film actually did happen, you’d likely think that it was, indeed, an impossible story.
Diane Lane is simple and strong as Penny Chenery, an heir to the Kentucky horse farm where she was raised. Penny is now raising her own family with her devoted, head-of-household-husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) in Denver. Back in Kentucky, the farm is failing and her number-crunching brother (Dylan Baker) wants to dump it as soon as their father, played by a miscast Scott Glenn, dies.
It’s the sort of story that unfolds across America every day – generations pass and new ones emerge, siblings fight over property their parents left behind. Typical family drama.
This family’s story, however, is far from typical. Penny has a knack for understanding breed lines and she winds up with what many horseracing advocates call the greatest racehorse in the history of the sport. The “impossible,” but apparently true, core of the movie is all in how she got there, and once the “impossible,” begins you can’t help but be engrossed in finding out what could possibly happen next.
Fortunes are won and lost on the fragility of breeding, birth, health, training and literally the flip of a coin. Penny assembles a ragtag team of talented equestrians led by quirky but gifted trainer Lucien (John Malkovich) and a scrappy jockey played by real life racer Otto Thorwath in a credible performance. Also worth mentioning is a sweet performance by Nelsan Ellis as farmhand Eddie Sweat, who, it is said, spent more time with the horse than anyone.
While the race scenes are slick, they never quite reach the level of excitement produced by their counterparts in one of my all-time favorite films, “Seabiscuit.” Both films are alike, however, in their attempt to include the title horses as characters – thinking, feeling creatures that race with pride and a sort of knowledge about the importance of events around them.
Still, the ground virtually shakes as the horses thunder by and the camera works its way inside the race to see the relationship between jockey and horse as well as the danger that is present with the flurry of hooves and 1,200-pound animals in racing battle.
Adding to the drama is, while Secretariat is making history, Penny has to fight to hang on to him, the farm and her marriage. Racing barons like Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell, in his typical stern but layered performance) circle the racing venues like sharks waiting for Penny to crumble, but she never does. She makes sacrifices to stand behind a horse that she believes can do what virtually no other horse had done before, or indeed has done since.
Although it’s sometimes tricky to separate fact from fiction in what is billed as an “impossible true story,” even when its main character is still alive, the story’s message remains the same. The real Penny Chenery has called “Secretariat” a “wonderful, feel good” movie. While I wouldn’t go that far in my assessment of the film, she does have a point. It’s hard not to root for the horse that made history, and you will most likely find yourself rooting for him, too.