Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Film Reviews: 'Secretariat'

BY ROGER EBERT / October 6, 2010

When Secretariat died at 19, my friend Bill Nack told me the autopsy revealed that the animal's heart was 2 and a half times the size of an average horse's. Bill had followed the horse for its entire life and wrote the book Secretariat, which inspired this film.

Bill and I became good friends at the University of Illinois in 1962. I remember him telling me in the 1970s about a racehorse he admired with great passion. I thought it was curious that Nack, who could recite long passages from Fitzgerald and Eliot by heart, had been lured away from literature by a racehorse. Now I understand. He found literature in a racehorse.

Bill has been the close friend of a lifetime. I would call that not a conflict of interest in writing this review, but more of a declaration. I have no fear in suggesting that his 20 years as Secretariat's biographer and his daily presence on the set contributed materially to this film. "Secretariat" just knows all sorts of things, and many of them I knew from Bill telling me over the years. They also grow from his love of horses, which began when he was a stable boy.

Let me tell you a story. When Bill was a reporter at Newsday, he climbed on a desk at an office party and recited the names of every Derby winner, correctly, in order. When he climbed down, the editor quietly called him aside and said, "How do you know that?" Then he made Bill the paper's turf writer, in some way setting this movie in motion.

You don't need me to tell you Secretariat was the crowning glory of the Sport of Kings. In 1973, he became the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years. Though more than 37 years have passed since he set records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, those records stand today.

It was said by some he was better over shorter distances, and that at the Belmont, he would fade against his great rival Sham, who would show more endurance. Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths. I knew that. Everybody knows that. Bill has shown me video of that race, with the astonishing gap between Secretariat and the rest of the field. So why, when I saw the race in the film, did I have tears in my eyes?

It was because "Secretariat" is a movie that allows us to understand what it really meant. This isn't some cornball formula film. It doesn't have a contrived romance. It's certainly not about an underdog: At the Belmont, Secretariat only paid $2.20 on a $2 bet, and 5,617 holders of winning tickets held onto them as souvenirs (a wise investment; those tickets go on eBay for as much as $1,000). "Secretariat" takes none of those mundane paths. It is a great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him.

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) was the daughter of a Virginia horse farm owner. Her father (Scott Glenn) was ill, and his family thought they should sell the farm. But she could read lineages. She flipped a coin with a millionaire and "lost" but won the mare she wanted — and she was there in the stable when the mare gave birth. The groom said he'd never before seen a horse stand up on its legs that soon after birth.

There was something about Secretariat. Bill, who was a regular visitor at Meadow Farm in Virginia throughout the horse's life, tried to get me to understand: The people around the horse felt it was blessed. Penny Chenery refused to sell the farm, turned down an offer of $7 million for the still-untested horse, and left her husband and family behind in Colorado to commute to Virginia. She had faith. So did he groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who was with Secretariat more than any other human being during the horse's life. And so did Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the trainer who had been trying to retire when Penny hauled him away from his golf clubs.

Diane Lane, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, and John Malkovich
© Walt Disney Pictures

The movie focuses closely on the owner, the trainer and the groom. It has no time for foolishness. When the time for the coin flip comes with millionaire Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), we understand why Mrs. Chenery wants the mare she does, and director Randall Wallace underlines that with admirable economy, using a closeup of Malkovich studying a breeding chart that works better than five minutes of dialogue.

Gene Siskel used to say his favorite movies were about what people actually do all day. That's what "Secretariat" is. It pays us the compliment of really caring about thoroughbred racing. In a low-key way, it conveys an enormous amount of information. And it creates characters who, because of spot-on casting, are vivid, human and complex. Consider how it deals with the relationship between Penny and her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh). They became estranged because of her decisions, Nack says, but the movie only implies that rather than getting mired in a soap opera.

As a woman, Penny is closed out of racing's all-boy club. If a man neglected his family for a race horse, that might be common. But a woman is committing some sin against nature. And when she refused to sell, her whole family — husband, brother, everyone — put enormous pressure on her. They were sure her decision was taking money out of their pockets. How she raises money to keep the farm is ingenious lateral thinking, and best of all, it's accurate.

This whole movie feels authentic. Diane Lane, who is so good in so many kinds of roles, makes Penny a smart woman with great faith in her own judgment and the courage to bet the farm on it. Every hair in place, always smartly turned out, she labors in the trenches with Lucien and Eddie, negotiates unflinchingly with the Old Boys, eats the stomach-churning meals at the diners where the track crowd hangs out. She looked at the greatest racehorse in the world and knew she was right, when all about her were losing their heads and blaming it on her.

Of the actors, I especially enjoyed John Malkovich. He has a way of conveying his reasoning by shorthand and implication. He creates a portrait of horse trainer who's slow to tip his hand, which is correct. No role in Mike Rich's screenplay is overwritten, or tries to explain too much. Like "The Social Network," another contender for year-end awards, it has supreme confidence in its story and faith that we will find it fascinating. This is one of the year's best films.

To my shame, I used to kid Bill that he wrote stuff like, "Big Red knew it was an important day," as if he could read Secretariat's mind. He wrote nothing of the sort. We would speculate about what a horse does know. W.G. Sebald once wrote, "Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension." Yes, I think so. But between Secretariat and his human family something was comprehended. There's a scene here when Penny Chenery and her horse look each other in the eye for a long time on an important morning. You can't tell me they weren't both thinking the same thing.

Here’s One for the Winner’s Circle: Secretariat Is Fun, Heartwarming and a Joy to Watch

By Rex Reed
The New York Observer
October 5, 2010 8:57 p.m

With so much junk crowding movie marquees these days, it's a joyous feeling to see a warm, wonderful, skillfully made picture with nothing on its mind but pure pleasure for all ages. Secretariat fills the bill nicely. If you're a horse-movie junkie like me, if you loved National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, Smoky, The Black Stallion and both movies about Seabiscuit (to name only a few four-legged box office bonanzas), you will love this one. I mean, it's got one of the most spectacular horses of all time. And it's got Diane Lane. What's not to love?

Secretariat, directed with style and elegance by Randall Wallace, is, of course, the awesome chronicle of one of the greatest American thoroughbred racehorses in history, who, in 1973, became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years, winning the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, the Preakness in a last-minute dash by only two lengths and the Belmont Stakes in 2 minutes, 24 seconds. The Derby and Belmont records have never been beaten or even duplicated to this day. And no proud owner ever toiled so bravely and vigorously to save her beloved horse, farm or family than the financially beleaguered Penny Chenery Tweety, a Denver housewife who sacrificed a lot, hocked her life and compromised her marriage and family life to follow her dream to racing history. Played with honesty and naturalism by the beautiful, heartfelt and deeply committed Diane Lane, Mrs. Tweety comes alive as much as Secretariat does. You will end up loving them both unconditionally.

No need to go into Secretariat's breeding history or vital statistics, but you get all the facts, meticulously condensed without cost to the overall entertainment value. The story begins in 1969, when Mrs. Tweety flies to her childhood home in Virginia for the funeral of her mother, the brains and conscience behind the family's failing horse-breeding farm. Everyone, including her husband (Dylan Walsh, from TV's Nip/Tuck), expects Penny to sell what remains, but after rummaging through the books and discovering the farm has been mismanaged by a crooked trainer, she fires him and hires a flashy, eccentric replacement named Lucien Lauren, who is crazier than anything with four legs (John Malkovich, chewing the scenery with over-the-top temper tantrums, in purple hats, cherry-red shirts, fuchsia ties and a Truman Capote lisp). You get a lot of facts about sires, brood mares, foals, tax issues and dishonesty in the ranks, but the genealogy is tangential to the real story of how Penny ignores everyone's sound business advice and raises and nurtures a new chestnut colt called Big Red, whose moniker is rejected by the Jockey Club 10 times before her family's loyal secretary, Elizabeth Ham (played with solidity and gusto by Margo Martindale), submits the new name, Secretariat. In July 1972, the stallion wins his first race under his new name in Saratoga, saddled with a controversial new jockey named Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thurworth), who is so aggressive he is known to drive his horses until their hearts explode. But Ronnie falls for Secretariat the same way Penny did, and from there, it is silver trophies all the way. Seven wins in four months, named Horse of the Year at age 3, Secretariat cannot be slowed. Financial ruin follows when the $6 million inheritance tax on the farm can only be paid by selling her prize horse. To her family's horror, she refuses, insisting her father's legacy is not about money, but "the will to win." More setbacks in 1973, when America's favorite magazine-cover horse arrives at the Kentucky Derby with abscessed gums, but Penny's critics, who resent a woman's triumph in a man's sport, are flummoxed again. Most horses are built for either speed or distance. Secretariat could do both. And in June 1973, this great horse made his bid for immortality and won the Triple Crown.

There's not much suspense. I mean, it's not that we don't know how it all turns out. But director Wallace still manages to milk every event of maximum excitement. The movie is about the mutual adoration between owner and horse, her unwavering faith even when the chips were down, the special relationship that developed between them and about the people who believed in them both and the ones who didn't. In the 37 years since his retirement at age 3, no horse has ever duplicated his success. Before his death, in 1989, he sired 600 foals, many of them prizewinners on their own, and he remains one of the very few horses to this day who was buried whole instead of cremated. I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff, and there is plenty of it in Secretariat. This is one terrific movie about one terrific horse. It enthralls on so many levels—emotional, cinematic, historic—that I am willing to bet you'll go away sated with satisfaction from paddock to finish line.


Get a great story and run with it

By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
Friday, October 8, 2010

It's tough to guess who will enjoy "Secretariat" more -- filmgoers who remember the extraordinary events of 1973, when the chestnut 3-year-old won the first Triple Crown in 25 years, or those for whom the story is brand-new. With this stirring, thoroughly entertaining movie, director Randall Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart") has achieved the next to impossible, injecting genuine tension and suspense into a narrative we all know the ending to.

Wallace's secret is that he makes "Secretariat" about characters, not races, and he has found irresistible protagonists in both his equine and human subjects. Coming from behind with a heart as big as a house is Secretariat, known to his owners and intimates as Big Red, who at first is so slow "he couldn't beat a fat man encased in cement being dragged backwards by a freight train," according to his trainer (played with quirky, crusty gusto by John Malkovich). But his owner believes in him: Penny Chenery Tweedy, a Denver homemaker who inherits her father's Virginia horse farm and battles the sexist forces of her own family and the horse racing establishment to champion Big Red and change the face of the sport forever.

One of the best things "Secretariat" has going for it is that Tweedy is played by Diane Lane, who brings her signature, ineffable blend of radiance, toughness and demure reserve to a woman who knows how to wear just the bright brooch when upending the patriarchy. It's a testament to Big Red's mythical force that he's portrayed by five horses in the movie of his life -- including one charismatic steed that, like Secretariat himself, plays to the camera so cannily you could almost swear he winks.

Juxtaposing Tweedy's you-must-pay-the-rent travails and her conservative husband's complaints with Big Red's journey to becoming a superstar, Wallace turns "Secretariat" into a parable of faith and quiet, assured feminism. If some of the back-home scenes are awkwardly staged (especially Tweedy's teenage daughter who rebels against her parents' politics in a parody of liberal agitprop) and the plot contoured for Hollywood efficiency, the story itself is too infectious to resist.

Filmed with breathtaking immediacy, the racing sequences are utterly heart-stopping, with each hoofbeat and clod of dirt seeming to leap off the screen, especially during Secretariat's astonishing run in the Belmont Stakes. (Fans will appreciate Wallace's decision to show much of the Preakness on a television monitor, reproducing how most of us remember the event.)

But at its core, "Secretariat" is the story of a girl and her horse, that mystical bond between human and animal that, by quoting the Book of Job to open and close the movie, Wallace suggests is almost spiritual. When Big Red snorts as Tweedy approaches his stall, it's a moment of transcendent recognition. And in its own way it's more thrilling that those legendary runs themselves.

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