Movie Review: Secretariat

Movie Secretariat

Director: Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask)

Screenwriter:  Mike Rich (The Nativity Story, Radio, The Rookie, Finding Forrester)

Starring:  Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm, Unfaithful, Jumper); John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons, Being John Malkovich, Con Air) and Dylan Walsh (Congo, The Lake House, The Stepfather)

Theater – Cinemark Movies 12 – Ames, Iowa

Companion – Nader Parsaei

Food – King Buffet

Intellectual Honesty

I am an absolute sucker for a horse movie.  I’m not sure Hollywood could make a horse movie I wouldn’t love.  That includes you Hot to Trot!


I don’t think that Randall Wallace can direct a movie that is above average.  I don’t think Disney makes very good live action movies.  Yes, Old Yeller is the first movie to make me cry and I still cry every time I see it, but in the last 20 years the only Disney live action movie that is watchable is The Rookie.


Housewife and mother Penny Chenery (Lane) takes over her ailing father’s Virginia bases Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing knowledge. Against all odds, Chenery – with the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich) – and while putting her marriage at risk – manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years.


I often heard the following indictment of the movie Titanic: “I don’t need to see the movie. I already know the ship sinks.”  It is a statement of ignorance and is hardly a decent indictment of 2nd highest grossing movie of all-time.  It isn’t a legitimate criticism because the setting of Titanic sinking is just that, the setting. You know the ship sinks, but you don’t know what is going to happen to the fictional characters Jack and Rose.  So while you watch the movie knowing that eventually the big ship is going to run into an iceberg and end up on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, you don’t know if Jack and Rose will end up on the sea floor with the mighty ship or if they will be part of the few hundreds of people that managed to survive that freezing April night.

If somebody was to say to me, “I don’t need to see Secretariat, I already know that he wins.”  I actually would agree with them that knowing that Secretariat wins does take something out of seeing this movie.  The way the screenplay is written, the entire payoff of the movie is the Belmont Stakes.  A race that even people who know nothing about horse racing know Secretariat won by over 30 lengths. Perhaps the single most dominant performance in any sport in sporting history.

However, even knowing how the movie is going to end, I’m not sure that the story of Secretariat would make a great movie without considerable creative license taken by the filmmakers.

Let’s face it, Secretariat is the greatest racehorse to ever live.  The only other horse that can ever be entered into the conversation is Man o’ War.  A horse that was so dominant that the 1 and only time he lost a race, it popularized the term upset for a description of a surprising outcome in a sporting event.  The horse that defeated Man o’ War was named Upset.

However, Secretariat was at least as dominating as Man o’ War. He won the Triple Crown while setting records in 2 of the 3 races.  Winning the third jewel of the Triple Crown by an incredible 31 lengths.  His time of 2:24 broke the stakes record by more than 2 seconds!

An absolutely amazing animal, but great sports movies aren’t about dominant athletes.  They are about underdogs.  Nobody would watch a movie following my training for a 1 on 1 basketball game against Jesse Howard with a climax of me beating him yet again.  No! People would want to see a movie following his training to play me.  Then he would have lots of unorthodox training methods and in the game he would make some improbable shots and upset me barely.  On a last second shot.

So in Secretariat they make a game effort to make Penny Chenery (Lane) an underdog, but it falls short.  She is a woman in a man’s world, sort of.  She is never the victim of any discrimination. She isn’t supported by her husband and she borderline abandons her family, but the only thing that ever happens in that world are a couple of terse conversations with her husband and her eldest daughter almost becomes a hippie.  That being said, her hippie daughter and her hippie friends are the cleanest hippies I’ve ever seen.  They look more like the cast of the Partridge Family than real hippies, but I guess that is still a threat to conservative Southern family values. The only real conflict she faces in the entire movie is she has to raise 6 million dollars to pay her inheritance tax or risk having to sell Secretariat.  As intriguing as that sounds on the surface, when was the last “underdog” you knew that had to struggle to pay 6 million in inheritance taxes?  Boo-frigging-hoo!

There are aspects of the story that are undeniably interesting.  Secretariat was won on a losing coin toss.  The richest man in the world flipped a coin with Penny Chenery and won the coin toss.  Then he picked the other horse.  Chenery won Secretariat by default.

Secretariat lost his last race before the Kentucky Derby because he has an abscess and wasn’t able to train much before the Kentucky Derby.

But an abscess and 6 million dollars in inheritance taxes do not much of a story make.

In addition to not taking you on much of a roller coaster ride, the script is riddled with some pretty bad dialogue. I don’t think anybody could have given a great performance, considering the type of stuff they were forced to say. Malkovich’s character Lucien Laurin plays more like a caricature than a character.  That being said, it is still awful fun watching him play the cheeseball to the hilt.  Secretariat’s great rival’s (Sham) owner is way over the top.

I’d read a couple of reviews of this movie that claim that Secretariat is a form of Tea Party propaganda.  Certainly some of the politics in the movie are right wing (who else would use inheritance taxes as a plot conflict? Even though it is true.) but it isn’t propaganda.  At least it isn’t decently made propaganda.

The horse racing action sequence are well done, but boring when compared to what is still the greatest horse movie ever made Seabiscuit.

Secretariat might have been the better horse, but Seabiscuit is a way better movie.

Rating: 2.5/5 Caramels

Buy on DVD: Nope, but I’ll watch it again when it is on ABC Family.

2010 Ranking: Unranked at this time.

Bonus Information: There weren’t really any trailers that rang my bell.  I saw a longer trailer for Tangled, the Rapunzel movie and it looks even dumber than the teaser trailer I had seen a few months ago.  I remain intrigued by Megamind. I am bothered by the fact that the trailer for Unstoppable makes it look like a really good movie, but it is directed by Tony Scott, therefore it will suck.

Next Week:

Next week I will actually see 2 movies.  Red on Tuesday and Hereafter on Sunday.  I will also be on vacation, so I’m not sure when stuff will get published, but we’ll see how that cookie crumbles when I get my hands on it.