Screen Rant’s Paul Young reviews Secretariat

Secretariat is a wonderfully written film that is beautifully shot and a joy to watch. Writer Mike Rich deserves quite a bit of credit because he’s managed to bring depth to the story and warmth to the characters – specifically Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) and Big Red (Secretariat). By combining creative storytelling with characters audiences will care about, Rich was able to overcome what could have been an obstacle: most people will watch the movie already knowing how it ends.

Diane Lane gives a superb performance as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the housewife turned prestigious racehorse owner, as she copes with the loss of her mother and father. She is thrown into the male dominated world of horse breeding in order to save her father’s farm, a situation where she is clearly in over her head – although you could never tell by the way she conducts herself.

Her brother and her husband want her to sell the horses and the farm so she can go back to just being a housewife and mother of four – but she’s determined to keep her father’s legacy going. She feels the future of Meadow Stables lies with one unborn foal – a foal she can “win” with a simple toss of a coin. Her family is not alone in thinking she can’t cut it as a racehorse owner.

Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) – one of the richest men in the world at the time – tells her: “No offense but I hope your luck is as bad as your daddy’s,” as they wait for the outcome of the coin toss. Phipps wins the toss and chooses first and with her loss, Penny gets everything she wants. If Phipps had made the other unborn foal his choice, this story could have ended completely different but luckily for Penny (and the horse racing world) it didn’t.

Penny would spend the next 3 years of her life split between her duties as a mom, a wife and a prestigious racehorse owner and the movie represents this well. She assumes a great deal of responsibility on the farm which causes her to  miss out on numerous events back home, including a “protest play” her oldest daughter Kate (Amanda Michalka) spent two years putting together.

Diane Lane and Amanda Michalka in a scene from Secretariat

I thought the “protest play” was going to be an on-screen political nightmare but director Randall Wallace handles it and other potential politically charged scenes with tact and courtesy. What starts as a play with a humorous tone seemingly poking fun at hippie war protesters, turns into a wave of emotion as Wallace reminds us that Penny is heartbroken by her inability to attend the play and support her daughter, even though she disagrees with its politics. It’s a surprisingly emotional scene of a stressed and overburdened mother, and it turned out to be one of my favorites.

In fact, the movie is full of strong, emotional relationships all tied to Penny and I think it’s those types of sincere emotions that will keep audiences interested in the story. It’s completely obvious that Penny’s husband, Jack (Dylan Walsh) doesn’t agree with his wife’s decision not to sell the horse or farm and despite some marital tension, he never withdraws his support for her.

Secretariat has plenty of his own relationships and while both trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) and jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) are able to coax excellent performances from the horse, it’s clear a special relationship exists with his groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis). Although not easily discernible because the movie focuses heavily on Penny and Secretariat’s relationship, the inspiration for the film comes from a book about Eddie Sweat’s life with the horse by sports writer William Nack.

It has been said that Sweat spent more time with Secretariat than any other human and looking back, Randall Wallace did a very good job of showing that relationship subtly. There are very few scenes in the film where Sweat and the horse aren’t together – although Sweat is given very little dialog.  Sweat is even shown sleeping outside the horse’s stable the night before the Belmont Stakes race. It’s attention to details like this that draws you into the movie without realizing it until well after you leave the theater.

Secretariat is well worth your time and effort to see if only to watch this magnificent animal win the Triple Crown (he won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths!)

Diane Lane, Otto Thorwarth, Nelsan Ellis and John Malkovich in a scene from Secretariat

On a personal note – some parents may be tempted to bring their younger children to the film because it’s made by Disney, rated PG and has horses in it. I would recommend leaving them at home for this one because while the racing is exciting and fun, there is quite a bit of drama that could bore those under the age of 12 or 13. Just ask my 8 and 4 year old.

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Our Rating:


4 out of 5
(Excellent)