Watching Secretariat, the latest sports-related, “inspired by a true story” biopic about the triumph of stubborn white people over adversity, is an experience as antithetical to watching an actual horse race as it gets. Anticipation is the key in both cases, making the actual running of the horses a tremendous climax. But in the case of Secretariat, no attention is paid to the actual race itself. Instead, we get choppy digital photography of flying horse limbs divorced from their owners’ bodies and vomit-inducing close-ups of horses in motion that never actually show them in an intelligible way. These incompetent action scenes almost single-handedly capsize the film, which is a feat considering how stunted the rest of Secretariat‘s central melodrama is.
The film stars Diane Lane as real-life housewife Penny Chenery, who in 1972 and 1973 bred the titular Triple Crown-winning stag. The amazing thing about Chenery’s story is that she knew nothing about horses or racing before she sought out washed-up trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to raise her horse. The film reduces her story to a paint-by-numbers formula of a gutsy underdog stubbornly taking on all challengers against her better judgment. Her husband (Dylan Walsh) thinks she’s crazy for betting the little that’s left of her ailing father’s (Scott Glenn) estate without really knowing anything that she hasn’t taught herself about the sport—or horses, for that matter. Still, Chenery and her retinue of boosters have a cliché handy for any situation, like when she tells her husband and her brother (Dylan Baker) that she shouldn’t be held back and that she and her horse just need to be allowed to run their race. The fact that she’s using a lame horse analogy to justify putting off payment of $6 million worth of insurance taxes is amazing but sadly conventional, which speaks volumes about the paper-thin world Secretariat exists in.
That lack of depth and the persistent drive to applaud Chenery’s bull-headed decisions are to be expected given the film’s formula. Still, that doesn’t justify Secretariat‘s gleefully obnoxious tendency to have protagonists preach at the viewer about the eponymous horse’s virtues rather than actually showing them off to us. The film starts off with an absurdly high-handed and completely context-less quotation from the Book of Job. Chenery continues the film’s bombastic praise by calling him a horse “with a lot heart,” followed by the appraisal of groomer Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who jocularly adds that Secretariat’s got “fire in his belly.” The worst comes from the horse’s jockey, who assumes Secretariat is destined to run hard because he’s a horse and that’s just “who they are.”
Of that bunch, Sweat does the most egregious proselytizing for the horse, playing the token Magic Negro that gives Chenery the courage she needs to soldier on in her most difficult moments. He does this by teaching her the value of religion. This is especially sad because, like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he out-and-out tells Chenery that he doesn’t “know about religion” a few scenes before he and Chenery give Secretariat a bath while “Oh Happy Day” plays. It’s supposed to be a testament of faith, but as it is, it looks like the work of filmmakers that only know what they want to say but haven’t the faintest idea of how to say it.
Secretariat is such a messy stew of sentimentality because it tries to take on too much. Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) and screenwriter Mike Rich (Radio) haven’t earned the right to cut as many corners as they have. For example, much of the significance of Secretariat’s races is supposed to come from Chenery’s domestic drama with her husband and four children, especially her two teenage daughters, who are growing up to become rebellious flower children and hence need guidance now more than ever. That seemingly vital plotline is abandoned once the Triple Crown Races begin, leaving a catchall scene where Chenery’s nuclear family is watching her horse race to shoulder the burden of wrapping up that entire subplot. In light of that kind of lazy storytelling, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that the film’s race scenes are all flaring nostrils and enormous bug-eyed pupils. Everything else in the film is composed of blustery, untenable declarations, so why should the film’s main attraction be any different?