Toward the end of Secretariat, an equine biopic about the famed racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1973, Secretariat’s trainer, an eccentric French-Canadian played by John Malkovich, makes a stunning admission. For all his years of experience and in spite of the victories he’s enjoyed, he doesn’t really understand how horses think. Along with a few close-ups of horses’ eyes looking as if they could belong as easily to feral beasts as domestic animals, it’s a rare mysterious moment in a film otherwise too concerned with smoothing out Secretariat’s story to fit a family-friendly underdog sports narrative. There’s adversity, triumph, and lessons learned on the way to a happy ending. And upbeat scenes set to stirring, era-appropriate songs? Do you even have to ask?
Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) directs from a script by Mike Rich, who also penned Radio, Finding Forrester, and The Rookie. Only the lattermost landed on the right side of the divide between inspiring and corny. Secretariat walks it, with fine performances from Malkovich and Diane Lane helping to keep the balance. Lane plays Penny Chenery, the daughter of a horse-breeder living, as the film opens, the busy life of a full-time mother of four. When her mother dies, leaving a dementia-stricken father behind, Lane returns to her Virginia home. Her arrival coincides with a downturn in her family’s finances and the arrival of a colt quickly dubbed Big Red, an animal whose racing potential is apparent almost from the moment of his birth. But potential and success aren’t one and the same, and Lane—with the assistance of Malkovich and a few others devoted to the red colt soon to be renamed Secretariat—finds her time monopolized by tending to the animal’s training, particularly once her family’s fortune becomes wrapped up in his success.
Lane gives her character depths the rest of the film never achieves. Though it makes some Seabiscuit-like attempts to place Secretariat’s story in the context of the times, they feel like an afterthought. We know Lane’s Marcia Brady-sunny daughter is committed to protesting the Vietnam War because she mentions it with virtually every line. And while the light sprinkling of feminism gives the film some added flavor, it doesn’t really need the moment when Lane’s husband tells her she’s taught their children “what a real woman is.” As a complex tale simply told, it works well enough, though Wallace doesn’t really try to create anything beyond a routine crowd-pleaser, and the moments that might have helped transcend formula—particularly the racing scenes—are merely workmanlike. The film ultimately feels like a well-trod journey to a familiar destination with not enough wonder along the way.