Secretariat Review

The greatest race horse of all time gets not quite the greatest biopic of all time from Disney. Not a bad watch though.

There once was a horse called Secretariat. He was born Big Red but his owner had to vary it. He won the Triple Crown. And was the talk of the town. If the rumors are true, he liked to wear ladies’ underwear and be called Harriet.

Or maybe that was J. Edgar Hoover. I forget. Regardless, we now have the inevitable pairing of Disney and the story of the champion thoroughbred who captured the hearts of millions during his 1973 campaign to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Not only did Secretariat prove to be up for the task, winning the Kentucky Derby in a time that still stands as the fastest ever recorded and following that up with another impressive win at the Preakness, his domination at the third jewel of the Triple Crown, where he won the Belmont Stakes by an incredible 31 lengths, immortalized the animal as the standard bearer for race horses.

If this is news to anyone reading then I apologize for potentially detracting from your potential viewing of the film Secretariat. If you already know about or at least vaguely recall the horse’s exploits, and surely most realize that there’s something special enough about him to justify a movie being made, then the picture’s appeal will become twofold. Foremost, it’s the story of a tough, independent woman – Penny Chenery Tweedy – who believed in her horse while apparently compromising her home life hundreds of miles away. Tweedy, played beautifully by Diane Lane, is shown transitioning from a Colorado housewife and mother of three to a horse owner in Virginia who splits her time between the two places while trying to raise enough funds to keep the family farm afloat. If you’re looking for pluck and feisty assertiveness, you’ve found it. She’s hands-on in learning what’s necessary to get Red, a.k.a. Secretariat, on his way to glory.

She finds a trainer in French-Canadian Lucien Laurin who has a history of losing big races but doesn’t lack motivation. Another character comments that he “dresses like Super Fly,” a great line that’s unfortunately an anachronism since the classic 1972 blaxploitation movie with that title character hadn’t come out yet at the time. In the role of Lucien, John Malkovich has his comedic potential peak early, plus he’s not shown interacting enough with the horse, but he still manages to interject something delightfully eccentric for a Disney movie. The horse’s team of handlers is filled out by a slightly loose cannon of a jockey in Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thurwarth), loyal Chenery family secretary Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), and Red’s groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis).

If Tweedy’s determination is the guiding force of the picture then her horse’s extraordinary talent is what mostly holds it all together. Secretariat’s story via Disney was virtually destined to be heavy on bunk. This is, after all, the kind of Disney-brand syrup that has long targeted those who view movies as entertainment rather than art. Yet, we should still be able to take comfort in the great predictable force of the sports movie where the athlete triumphs. Viewers have always loved this sort of thing and with good reason. The dramatic satisfaction to be found in sports is more or less unmatched, at least with any frequency, elsewhere. Factor in a competitor as dominant as Secretariat and you have a built-in source of goodwill. People love a winner. People really love a winner who essentially humiliates his villainous opponent.

The film can’t help itself in creating antagonists. There are a few, including the worlds collide pairing of Dylan Walsh, as Penny’s husband Jack Tweedy who doesn’t understand why his wife is constantly away from home, and Dylan Baker, as Penny’s brother who doesn’t understand why his sister is constantly away from home and so stubborn as to keep the family horse farm active. These two are only mild obstacles, as is James Cromwell as the wealthy Ogden Phipps, owner of Secretariat’s sire Bold Ruler. The bad guy meant for booing is Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano), trainer of Secretariat’s rival Sham. He’s the inflammatory figure of the movie. Why such a character is necessary remains difficult to comprehend. The victory is apparently sweeter, according to Disney and other purveyors of the formula, when there’s someone dastardly to suffer in defeat.

The catharsis of Secretariat’s success seems built for an emphasis on maximum crowd-pleasing. It has the potential to be enormously satisfying and electric. What plays out in the film is not quite disappointing, but it could perhaps be better. Director Randall Wallace made some interesting choices, like often showing the race action from the point of view of the horse’s legs and conceding the Preakness victory to actual footage of the contest shown on the Tweedy family television. Seabiscuit, this is not. Indeed, watching Secretariat kind of made me to want to revisit Gary Ross’s 2003 film in order to be reminded of that cinematic thrill the sport can possess. To Secretariat‘s credit, it never lags, the story is strong, and the central performances of Lane and Malkovich go far in establishing a confidence in the movie. Fans of horse racing or fairly warm cinema should enjoy what’s on display here, but there are clear cracks in the foundation.

The Disc(s)

Secretariat gallops (couldn’t resist) onto Blu-ray and DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The package being reviewed here contains both a region-free BD, as indicated by the disc and back of the package and confirmed by my player, and a DVD. They are dual-layered.

The wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio image is very warm and bathed in a nostalgic glow. Detail is excellent. The outdoor scenes, particularly the horse racing ones, stand out for their crispness and bright, bold (if not quite always natural-looking) colors. Skin tones are likewise full of life. Dark shadows and interiors play a larger role here than one might expect, and the transfer doesn’t always maximize the film’s use of black. That’s really the only issue of note. Otherwise, we’re looking at a rather nice example of Disney and the film’s cinematographer Dean Semler making the early ’70s look as beautified as you’ll ever likely see them. And dig those colors on Malkovich’s get-ups.

Audio is triumphant in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The races do sound pretty thrilling, with hooves pounding and dirt kicking up audibly. Dialogue also comes through cleanly and the overall volume has a consistency to it that is appreciated. The score can be overdone at times, but I suppose that’s to be expected. Dolby Digital 5.1 options in both French and Spanish are also offered, as are subtitles in those languages as well as English. They are white in color. Additionally, there’s a DVS track in English Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s carried over to the DVD, which has English, French and Spanish DD 5.1 audio options and the same languages subtitled.

Those who listen to commentaries can take notes as director Randall Wallace details most everything about the process of making Secretariat. Wallace also speaks over the included Deleted Scenes, seven in all and running about ten and a half minutes total. His commentary is optional.

A pair of entirely worthwhile featurettes, in HD on the Blu-ray, are the twin highlights of the supplements. First is “Heart of a Champion – An Inside Look at Secretariat” (14:55), which focuses on the horse more than the movie and even shows actual footage of the races. The film’s principals are interviewed, as is Penny Chenery who is on hand for a fascinating talk with Wallace in “A Director’s Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery” (21:12). Wallace sits down next to Chenery and asks for her take on a few things about the film but also lets her speak in some depth. This is a wonderful piece.

“Choreographing the Races” (6:27) is a short look at what went into getting the race footage seen in the film. A “Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation” is also action-oriented but instead is about the real horse’s actual running of the 1973 Preakness, the one seen only on a television set in the film. It shows the race from a collection of different angles, plus a computer simulation. The BD menu offers up different options such as Jockey, Spectator and Actual Race for viewing.

A music video the world doesn’t really need of AJ Michalka, who plays the activist Tweedy daughter in the film, performing her song “It’s Who You Are” (4:02) is here. It, the “Heart of a Champion” featurette and three of the deleted scenes are the only extras found on the DVD. Sneak peeks and promos have, as usual, also found their way onto the discs.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jan 25, 2011

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