The Old Testament Book of Job may be an unlikely source for an epigram for a feel-good Disney sports movie, but Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich (The Blind Side, The Nativity Story) has a good reason for going to this least feel-good of all biblical books. If God wasn’t actually thinking of Secretariat when he challenged Job in Chapter 39, at least Secretariat was about as perfect an embodiment of what God had in mind, not only when he spoke to Job, but when he created the horse in the first place.
“Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust?
His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength …
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed …
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.” (Job 39:19-24)
The Horse That God Built was the title of one book about Secretariat. All horses are built by God, of course, but Secretariat exemplified a perfection that made you remember it. He cut a breathtaking, majestic figure among horses, looking every inch the champion he was: handsome, bright chestnut red, with three white stockings and a star with a thin blaze; perfectly proportioned, though unusually tall and heavily built for a breed known for slimness — and something else, a regal bearing or celebrity stage presence. “Big Red” was his first, informal name, the name we see him called by the people closest to him: his owner, Mrs. Helen “Penny” Chenery Tweedy, his groom, his trainer and his jockey.
The film, directed by Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers), uses a number of look-alike horses, though how closely they approximate the real thing I’m not qualified to say. What I can say is that the filmmakers have found a striking way to evoke Secretariat’s speed, power and grace through special emphasis on sound. When Secretariat kicks into high gear, the rhythmic thunder of his breath combines with the pounding of his hooves till it sounds like the engine cab of a freight train roaring at top speed on a straightaway. His majestic snorting is terrible indeed.
In there, too, is the furious pounding of the horse’s immense heart — no metaphor that, for at his autopsy Secretariat’s heart was found to be more than twice the average size, weighing nearly 22 pounds. (The average heart weight for thoroughbreds is about 9 pounds.) This was no malformation: It has since been discovered that some thoroughbreds have a large heart gene that is passed from the dam (mother). This was the secret of Secretariat’s unexpected stamina. (From his great sire Bold Ruler’s track record, some expected Secretariat to be long on speed and short on stamina; the dam’s contribution was not then fully appreciated.)
Secretariat’s great Triple Crown victories in 1973 rocked the nation at a time when the headlines were otherwise all about Vietnam and Watergate. Secretariat could have gone the Seabiscuit route in emphasizing the horse’s cultural significance at a time of national malaise (for Seabiscuit the backdrop was the Depression). War does make an appearance, but only insofar as it relates to Penny Tweedy’s daughter’s efforts to find herself in the counterculture. “Our politics may change,” Penny (Diane Lane in a terrific performance) says with carefully measured tolerance in a brief phone call with her hippie daughter, “but not our duty to do what we believe is right.”
With her Jackie O fashion sense and gracious, reserved manner, Penny seems to belong to an earlier decade, with none of the revolutionary sort of feminism characteristic of the 1970s. Yet she’s smart, confident, determined and impossible to intimidate. She has a way of getting what she wants without getting angry or strident. There is only a flicker of something like annoyance when her husband points out the difficulties of their taking over her ailing father’s failing horse farm: “I’m a lawyer and you’re a housewife,” he says, meaning of course “only a housewife.”
Penny doesn’t resent her housewife status, but she tries to explain why she feels compelled to fight for her father’s horse farm and for Secretariat: “When I went to college, I felt like that colt — full of promise and adventure,” she says. “I gave up a career to raise our family.” Now, opposed by her husband and her brother (Dylan Walsh and Dylan Baker, respectively) as well as circumstances — the inheritance tax on the horse farm will be $6 million they don’t have — she wants to see how far she can go, not to mention how far Secretariat can.
There are sacrifices. In one scene Penny cries on a hotel bed, listening over the phone to the school play that meant so much to her daughter, which she has missed due to a canceled plane. Yet, in the end, even her husband, who previously insisted that her family needed her and couldn’t afford her dreams, comes around. “You taught them something they couldn’t have learned any other way,” he tells her. “You taught me something too.” Does it affect how we receive this message if we know that in real life the Tweedys eventually divorced?
Along with its celebrated subject matter, Secretariat’s best asset is its terrific cast. John Malkovich is an odd choice for trainer Lucien Laurin (the real Laurin was a former jockey), but he’s funny, especially when he gets hot under the collar. Supporting players include James Cromwell as tycoon Ogden Phipps, who almost got Secretariat from Penny in a coin toss, Scott Glenn as Penny’s ailing father, and Fred Thompson as a sympathetic owner of a rival horse farm. Nelsan Ellis as groom Eddie Sweat is a little too broad at times. The best supporting performance is probably Margo Martindale (Million Dollar Baby) as Elizabeth Ham, secretary to Penny’s father and later Penny’s assistant.
The movie is loosely based on Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by sports writer Bill Nack, who consulted on the film (and appears as a character, played by Kevin Connolly). The movie sticks to the basic outline of the facts but takes significant liberties, simplifying, streamlining and at times inventing where the facts (as is so often the case) might have made for a more interesting film.
Secretariat is what it is: an uplifting Disney movie about a horse that happens to be the greatest thoroughbred of the 20th century. Rich and Wallace, both Christians, serve up the big emotions and sincere sentiment that they’re known for — with a generous dollop of Golden Age Hollywood piety, from the epigram from Job to the strains of “Oh Happy Day” playing during Secretariat’s runaway triumph at the Belmont Stakes. Those who say Hollywood doesn’t make them like this anymore shouldn’t miss Secretariat.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
He also blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Some rude language. Fine family viewing.