By Bill Wine
Secretariat is a horse-racing flick saddled with dialogue that stumbles out of the gate.
It’s the true story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner (the first in 25 years), the lightning-fast colt many fans refer to as the greatest racehorse of all time.
Diane Lane (above) portrays Penny Chenery Tweedy, the Denver homemaker and mother of four who, despite having no knowledge of the horse-breeding arena and the horseracing game, agrees to take over financially troubled Meadow Stables in Virginia, which she will inherit from her ailing father (Scott Glenn) when he dies.
But instead of selling it to get the family out of debt, she decides to save it.
She hires veteran French Canadian horse trainer Lucien Laurin, played eccentrically by John Malkovich, to manage the stable and help Big Red, as the horse is then called.
They rechristen Big Red “Secretariat,” and he immediately begins demonstrating his speed, strength, stamina, and (as was discovered after his death, so the film ignores it, a literal) big heart.
In 1973, with the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal dominating the headlines, Secretariat becomes a heroic icon for fans looking for an uplifting distraction as he wins the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby in record-setting fashion.
But this is no triumphant, Seabiscuit-like underdog (underhorse?), an obligatory staple of most inspirational sports dramas. This racer is a dominant force, an odds-on favorite.
So the film focuses on the horse’s feminist owner, who leaves the family for the race game over the understandable objections of her husband (Dylan Walsh) and her economist brother (Dylan Baker), and has to fight an uphill battle in the male-dominated racing industry.
Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, the screenplay for Braveheart) has a problem generating suspense because the outcome is already known. But that’s not the film’s biggest problem, which is the truly dreadful dialogue by a screenwriter who has not begun to master the art of showing instead of telling.
The exposition-heavy, bereft-of-subtlety screenplay by Mike Rich — loosely based on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, by Willman Nack — spells everything out far too explicitly. The result is a snapshot of history in which precious few of the characters come to life as people rather than point-of-view mouthpieces.
The usually reliable Diane Lane appears in virtually every scene, spearheading the film’s female-empowerment thrust as a parallel to Secretariat’s accomplishments in a way that’s trotted out and articulated far too often. Doing most of the heavy lifting, she’s saddled with self-conscious, stilted, chalk-on-the-blackboard dialogue that she still almost manages to make sound like human speech. But not quite.
When horses are actually racing, with five horses — four thoroughbreads and a quarter horse — collectively playing the title character, the movie at least breathes. But when human characters are speaking, which is most of the time, only John Malkovich, in charge of comic relief, brings the script to any kind of three-dimensional life.
On the hierarchy of horse-racing movies, this one not only finishes well behind National Velvet, The Black Stallion, and Seabiscuit, it even falls to keep pace with Casey’s Shadow and Hidalgo.
So we’ll train 2 stars out of 4 for the bland and clumsy Secretariat, an unremarkable movie about a remarkable horse.