When Randall Wallace’s Secretariat finally exhausted its 116-minute story to its foregone conclusion, the audience I saw it with applauded—though not tumultuously. We’re not talking about the blow-the-roof-off double round of applause that greeted the first screening I saw of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire (once at Danny Boyle’s credit and again at the final fade-out), but Secretariat was obviously warmly received. I understood the applause, but I was not inspired to take part in it. This is well-crafted, shamelessly—and obviously—manipulative fantasyland stuff, passing itself off as a “true story,” when, in fact, it’s what we call “fact-based.” And that’s not quite the same thing as a “true story.”
All fact-based movies are dramatizations, otherwise no one would watch them. However, the problem arises from the power of such movies being taken at face value as the truth—written in vivid Thomas Kinkade-style colors on the big screen. Yes, the characters—well, most of them anyway—are drawn from real life and reinterpreted for maximum impact. Yes, there really was a Secretariat who did these remarkable things. Beyond that, well, it’s a Hollywood horse picture with everything that implies. If it had been fiction, the horse would have been named Broadway Bill and he would have expired the moment he crossed the finish line. In other words, the facts are there, but the movie is a luminous chunk of mythmaking that takes place in Brady Bunch territory.
The film’s closest relative is Gary Ross’s Seabiscuit (2003), which re-imagined the Great Depression as something solved by a horse. Here we have a wildly divisive period in American history depicted as nothing more than a silly “protest” play being staged by Kate Tweedy (Amanda Michalka, The Lovely Bones), eldest daughter of heroine Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane)—and a perfectly fine stand-in for Marcia Brady. Also, like Seabiscuit, it’s a horseracing yarn that completely manages to sidestep the fact that people bet on races—you know, that gambling is involved. (It really needed Claude Rains to show up and announce, “I’m shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here.”) This, of course, makes the movie safer to market as “family-friendly.”
What it comes down to is this: If you liked Seabiscuit, chances are you’ll like this. For that matter, if you liked The Blind Side, you’ll probably like this. Secretariat is splendidly professional in its execution and nice to look at. OK, it’s pretty silly when it resorts to close shots of horses in the starting gate giving each other what I can only suppose are meaningful looks. And depending on your patience for overstatement, you might find opening with a verse from the Book of Job, or a double-exposure where Secretariat appears to be descending from the clouds, a bit much. But in the main, this is a movie built on perfectly sound crowd-pleaser material. Penny stays the course and sticks to her guns to conquer all obstacles in getting her horse to Triple Crown glory. And if there’s not enough drama, the script adds a little, since near as I can discern there was no big conflict between her and rival horseman Pancho Martin (TV actor, Nestor Serrano). I guess it was felt the movie needed a bad guy.
Secretariat is really more about Diane Lane’s character than it is about the horse (though it could be argued that it only took one Diane Lane to play her role, but five horses to play Secretariat). More than that, it’s about having Lane pull a Bullock and snag an Oscar by playing a strong-willed female lead. She’s really the only one required to do any heavy-lifting acting. Everyone else—including John Malkovich—is cast with an eye toward just being the right fit for their nondimensional characters, so they don’t have to do much more than show up. And Lane might get Oscar-fied if the film catches on via word-of-mouth. Opening in third place at the box office may not matter for this kind of traditional cornball movie. Rated PG for brief mild language.