The monikers "popcorn" and "feel good," when attached to a film, carry with them the implication that the subject matter is unchallenging and therefore inconsequential, something to be dismissed by the more discerning moviegoer. It's not always an inaccurate assumption, given the amount of films made with the intent of appealing only to a very specific demographic, but as cinema is a mirror of the human experience, it stands to reason that triumphing in the face of adversity does happen on occasion, and does, indeed, feel pretty good. It would be a shame to dismiss a film for being a pure, simple story that will leave people feeling good about being people, because when done right, it's a great story. Secretariat was done right.
Secretariat, of course, is based on the true story of horseracing champion Secretariat, Triple Crown winner and arguably the fastest horse that ever lived. Like Seabiscuit, another equine underdog, Secretariat's potential was derided by investors and racing insiders, who believed his bloodlines indicated he was merely a speed horse who would fall short in a test of endurance. Famously, Secretariat went on to win the grueling Belmont Stakes by an astonishing 31 lengths.
The horse's career might have gone in quite a different direction, however, were it not for his owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), who referred to herself at one point as Secretariat's voice. The housewife and mother agreed to take over her father's Thoroughbred breeding operation when his health began to deteriorate, and refused to sell the farm despite pressure from virtually all ends. As her horse was dismissed for his supposedly inferior bloodlines, Chenery was dismissed for being a woman in a male-dominated sport. Her horse trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), drew ire for several embarrassing defeats, as well as his garish wardrobe; her gentle-handed groom (Nelsan Ellis) drew little attention whatsoever, being in what the racing industry's elites considered a lowly position; and her jockey (Otto Thorwarth) elicited controversy for his aggressiveness on the track. Ultimately, this perfect storm of unlikely candidates contributed to what became nationwide support for "Big Red" (Secretariat's barn name), whose habit of thundering to victory after breaking from the gate at the back of the pack won him no small amount of fans.
In films where the destination is already known -- in this case, the finish line at the Belmont Stakes, where Secretariat officially won the Triple Crown -- it truly is the journey that matters. Diane Lane took on a role that would have been too sugary in the hands of other actresses, infusing the character with enough vulnerability to be sympathetic, and enough toughness to be respectable. Malkovich works well with Lane, matching her poise with eccentricity and his rougher-edged confidence in Secretariat's potential. Director Randall Wallace handles Secretariat's races with an expert touch, showing the Kentucky Derby through the eyes of the spectators at the event, the Preakness Stakes through the eyes of those who watched the race on television, and the Belmont from the perspective of Secretariat and his jockey (Thorwarth's disbelieving expression at his own lead at the Belmont is worth the price of admission alone).
Unfortunately, when the film navigates away from the farm and toward Chenery's home life, it isn't able to carry the excitement of the track along with it. The marital tension she experiences seems hastily tacked on for dramatic effect where none is needed, and there is little chemistry between Lane and Dylan Walsh, in the role of Penny's husband. It's a small criticism, however, in an otherwise consistently rousing tale of victory. When the film begins, the audience knows that the big red horse with a lot of heart will win the coveted Triple Crown, along with the hearts and minds of a nation. Eventually, he does, and the end credits role. It feels good.
cast-crew for Secretariat on AllMovie