Suspense in the past tense
Secretariat, historical horse-racing drama, rated PG, Regal Stadium 14, 2 chiles
IThirty-seven-year-old spoiler alert! During the preview of this film, when thoroughbred Secretariat crossed the finish line to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes, the audience burst into applause. Were they surprised? Even if this crowd-pleasing Disney production weren’t based on a true story, surely they could see that happy ending coming from 31 lengths.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers to make movies like Secretariat. Re-creating real-life events — making them suspenseful, surprising, or at least engaging — has to be a challenge. A film about a history-making horse can’t hinge on the races, because almost everyone in the audience knows the outcome from the starting bell.
What can drive a film like this is the people who helped the horse get to the gate. In this case, one of them is Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), Secretariat’s owner. When the film opens, she’s a housewife and mother of four happily ensconced in her ranchstyle home in Denver, circa 1969. Her father (Scott Glenn, whose talent is wasted) runs a 2,500-acre horse farm in Virginia; when his health declines, she takes the reins to keep the farm afloat. She doesn’t know much about the male-dominated thoroughbred business, though, so she hires veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to help her get her footing. Together with groom Eddie Sweat ( True Blood’s fantastic Nelsan Ellis) and jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), they raise and train Secretariat, perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time.
The trouble with focusing on Chenery is that frankly, she — or at least screenwriter Mike Rich’s version of her — isn’t very interesting. Her story is short on dramatic obstacles, so Rich turns molehills into mountains to create tension — and then, before anyone in the audience gets too worried, turns them right back into molehills. We’re supposed to believe that Chenery will go to great lengths to maintain her father’s legacy, but the film’s limited, quick flashbacks
A tale of sporting triumph and fashion failure: