Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reel To Reel: Secretariat

Betting to win... no "place" in this "show."

Going Rate: Worth full price admission.
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language

Again, I'm catching up on movies I've been meaning to review but haven't.

Everyone loves a winner, so the cliche goes. It's not hard to understand why a powerhouse chestnut colt captivated a nation in 1973, even before this sensational 31-length win at the Belmont Stakes that cemented Secretariat as the greatest race horse of all time:

Secretariat, however, is not a horse story any more than Titanic is a boat story. It is the true story of a woman, Penny Chenery (Lane), who knows little about horse breeding but is tough and focused enough to pursue a goal to the end, especially in a field dominated by men.

Chenery takes over her father's suffering horse farm in Virginia, partially uprooting herself from her family in Colorado. She quickly figures out what's hurting the operation and begins to make changes, dismissing a double-dealing trainer and learning the secrets of successful breeding. Secretariat (played by several different horses) comes Chenery's way via a coin toss as part of a breeding agreement. She's on the losing side of the flip, but we learn it's exactly what she wants. Secretariat amazes nearly from birth, getting to his feet surprisingly quickly.

Looking for an ace trainer, Chenery recruits French-Canadian Lucien Laurin (Malkovich). He is trying to retire, if only he can get his golf swing right. All the training in the world, however, can't guarantee money -- or victories -- which is what those around Mrs. Chenery insist. Her father's farm slides deeper into financial difficulty, but Secretariat's owner knows she's got a sure bet. The Colorado housewife's decisions lead to friction in her marriage, but the movie does not harp on them. Why should it? Victory is just down the stretch. Furthermore, Lane's character has no time for melodrama. Strong women aren't sucked into that.

The film's racing sequences are amazingly intense and accurately recreated, partially shot with small digital cameras that allow us to go along for the ride. Director Randall Wallace, however, opts to let us see one via the actual TV footage, cutting us in on what Americans saw in 1973 and sidestepping a risk of monotony.

Secretariat is one of those films where you know the ending before the first frame, so the journey better be good. It is, but not in the conventional sports-movie way. The roller coaster of triumphs and setbacks is there but not involving its principal character, who just loves to run.

ESPN ranked Secretariat 35th on its list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th Century. When he died in 1989, a necropsy found his heart to be two-and-a-half times as large as the average horse, meaning it performed better and more efficiently than his competitors. "He is moving like a tremendous machine!" called broadcaster Chic Anderson during the Belmont Stakes. How true he was.

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