Secretariat Wins by a Length

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John Bramley

Diane Lane in Secretariat

The new Walt Disney film Secretariat, the story of the Triple Crown winner and perhaps the world's greatest racehorse, is a feel-good movie. When critics use that term, it's often a quiet condemnation, as if feeling good were a thing that the average person does blindly in response to a highly manipulated set of stimuli that a more discriminating one is smart enough to find lacking. But there is no point in being snotty about Secretariat. The saga of the horse becoming a champion has you pumping your fist in simple pleasure, not just over the victories of an incomparable and beautiful creature — famously described by sportscaster Chic Anderson as "moving like a tremendous machine" — but for his determined owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), the woman who gambled on Secretariat.

It also manages to be suspenseful, which in and of itself is no small feat for director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers). After all, Secretariat isn't exactly a dark horse. In 1973, at three years of age, the stallion appeared on the covers of TIME, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the span of one week. He'd already won the Kentucky Derby, establishing an as yet unbeaten speed record, as well as the Preakness, and had only the Belmont Stakes to go before becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. In short, he was the furthest thing from the underdog contender typically beloved by sports cinema.

His owner, however, was an underdog, if only by virtue of her sex, and that provides much of the film's drama. Penny Chenery Tweedy grows up around her father's horsebreeding business in Virginia, goes off to Smith College, has four children and settles into a housewife's life. When her mother dies, she leaves behind Penny's ailing father (Scott Glenn, lending dignity to a man with dementia) and a not exactly thriving horse farm. Penny, ever her father's daughter, doesn't want to give up the farm; her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker), a Harvard professor, is frantic to sell before they get hit with an enormous inheritance tax.

Penny's clean-cut attorney husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) is also highly skeptical of her endeavor. He's the kind of guy who gives his wife careful instructions on which wines to buy for a dinner party; it's clear he thinks of her as less competent than he is. His chauvinism is more low-key than, say, that of Pancho (Nestor Serrano) — the obnoxious owner of Secretariat's main rival, Sham — who takes shameless potshots at Penny's housewife status. But it's present nonetheless. We know Secretariat isn't going to turn out a dud, but we're not so sure about Penny's marriage. It's possible that the real Jack Tweedy was more supportive; it's worth noting that the real Penny, who has a cameo in the film, recently reminded the New York Times that Secretariat is a "Disney movie." She said she enjoyed it but that "we know they have to convey certain values and photogenic moments." Presumably the screenplay by Mike Rich (The Rookie) — "suggested," as the credits inform us, by William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion — might have heightened the drama by making marital tensions seem worse than they were. (Nack is also a character in the film, played by Kevin Connolly, who unfortunately plays him exactly the way he does Eric Murphy in Entourage.) Like the real Penny, we'll take Disney's version of the story with a grain of salt (or sugar), but this is an undeniably well-crafted genre piece.

Penny's father's legacy includes two mares pregnant by Bold Ruler, a champion stallion owned by financier Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), who is described throughout the movie as the world's richest man. Thanks to the peculiar habits of the horse-breeding world, a coin toss determines who keeps which foal. Phipps ends up with the more obvious choice, while Penny gets the unborn foal she already suspects might possess unusual speed and stamina. She hires a trainer, a flamboyant French Canadian named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, as fun as he's been in years), and they, the Chenerys' groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and Penny's young son all watch and marvel together as the huge colt is born and immediately clambers to his feet. There's a sweet moment when the boy learns that Something Royal, Secretariat's mother, has given birth 13 times and says to his mother admiringly, "You've done it four times." It's nicely done, warmly emotional and not too sentimental.

The most obvious comparison in terms of similarly inspirational movies featuring strong women is last year's The Blind Side, but Secretariat is about 90% less cheesy than that football saga. That's a product of the writing and the fortunate limitations of working with horses — they can't go shopping for a makeover — but much of the credit goes to Lane. She keeps her performance small and dignified, expertly intertwining Penny's vulnerability with her inner strength. Penny is very precise, a perfectly coiffed woman who dresses like a lady and behaves like one throughout the movie. (Lane as Pat Nixon could give Joan Allen a run for her money.) But her Penny is not the obvious steel-magnolia type, as Sandra Bullock was in The Blind Side; instead we see her strength and resolve develop gradually. This isn't a passionate, showy part but a finely drawn performance, worthy of a veteran actress who started her career, as Secretariat did, in the 1970s (in A Little Romance) and has since earned a champion status of her own.