The world of horse racing doesn't have many stars that roll off the tongue of the average American. You have Willie Shoemaker, the legendary jockey, but I think he's the only human that the man/woman on the street can name who was involved in horse racing. Out of horses, there are perhaps three: Seabiscuit, Barbaro, and perhaps the Citizen Kane of racing horses, Secretariat. Like all legends, it was inevitable that Secretariat would get a biopic. Secretariat is unapologetically rousing, and that is one of its pluses.
The film runs the course (no pun intended) of the legendary horse's life, starting from when Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) learns of her mother's death and her father Christopher's (Scott Glenn) physical/mental decline. She's pressured by her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) and her brother Hollis (Dylan Baker) to sell the family stables and horses, but she resists. She believes one of the horses born there may be a winner. With nothing but determination and confidence, she decides to hire temperamental trainer Lucius Laurin (John Malkovich) to train the newly-christened Secretariat, and they discover his amazing abilities to run fast. Taking a gamble, they decide to enter him to win The Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes--something that has not occurred in over twenty years. Penny must balance her racing life (and the sexist attitudes of the other horse owners and trainers) along with her family life (which has a disapproving husband and four children, with her eldest daughter joining the anti-Vietnam War movement).
Secretariat doesn't have spoilers: if you DIDN'T know Secretariat DID win the Triple Crown then you are amazingly ignorant. The trick in a film like Secretariat is to make it exciting in the racing scenes without short-changing the human drama of Penny Chenery's story. Director Randall Wallace manages this because he gets us so involved in the story that, even though we already know the outcome, we still sit at the edge of our seats when Secretariat starts to pull away at Churchill Downs. The reaction in the audience at the screening I attended testifies to this: when Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby they burst into cheers and applause. He also handles unabashedly sentimental and touching moments deftly: the scene where Penny goes to her dying father is as unapologetic about its sentiments.
His directing is complimented by some wonderful acting, chief among them Diane Lane as Penny. She is the appearance of a perfect, genteel, elegant woman, with her coiffed hairdo and elegant wardrobe. However, Lane does not make her a plastic being nor a Mad Men-tortured woman. Instead, Lane's Penny (does that just sound a bit peculiar) is an intelligent, strong woman who doesn't see the need to be abrasive to get what needs to be done. This makes her scene when she does lash out at Laurin and her jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth) even stronger. Penny also is subtlety progressive: she supports her daughter's struggle to express her anti-war views. Sometimes just her facial expression speaks for itself. "I'm a professor and you're a housewife", her brother tells her, showing a condescending 1960s thinking. She doesn't verbally respond but makes her displeasure clear. Malkovich's Laurin is a bit crazy (especially in his garish wardrobe) but matches Penny's toughness in his determination to redeem his reputation.
Of the smaller roles, they are excellent all-around. Former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson brings his gruff likeability to Bull Hancock, a friend of the Chenerys who serves as an early mentor to Penny, as well as Drew Roy as Seth Hancock, Bull's son who joins Penny's quixotic quest to raise the funds to pay off the horse's growing costs. James Cromwell as the financier Ogden Phipps (who loses Secretariat to Penny in a coin toss) has the patrician mannerisms down pat. Margo Martindale's Miss Ham (how Southern) has moments of both comedy and drama which make her a delightful character. Nelsan Ellis' Eddie Sweat serves as guide to Penny, belying any sense of bigotry. In fact, given that we were only a few years after the civil rights movement, the relationship between Sweat and Chenery is one of mutual respect and courtesy rather than servant and master. Chenery never treats Sweat as anything else but her equal, and Ellis brings Sweat's genuine love for Secretariat and horse racing to the forefront.
Even really small parts, like that of chauvinist/rival horse owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano) and sports reporter Bill Nack (Kevin Connolly), while brief, still manage to make an impression in the overall story. No character in Mike Rich's script is minimized or ridiculed, but instead is given their moment.
Secretariat has the goal of making audiences cheer for both the horse and his owner, and it does it well. Wallace builds great tension in the way he stages the races, giving us both a birds-eye and audience's view of them. He also anchors Secretariat with the song Oh Happy Day, which serves as its unofficial theme. The sense of joy, of optimism, and hope Secretariat has is communicated so sincerely that by the end of the film, one will likely leave either singing or humming the Edwin Hawkins Singers signature song. The film is yes, shameless in its goal to give you an inspirational story; however, when it works, like it does in Secretariat, you do rejoice. Oh Happy Day indeed.