There are some stories that are good regardless of dialogue problems, middling budgets, and preachy undertones. Sometimes a story can be good because of one actor’s performance, or the way a director edits his material, or because the finished product is harrowing or uplifting in a memorable way. Sometimes we love a good protagonist, and sometimes we love a good bad guy, and sometimes there is another, more underlying source of film wealth. The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t work without the ring, nor would Marley and Me be the same without the tear-jerking from the dog. Secretariat is not the protagonist of the story that honors his legacy, but he is its backbone. The audience will be riveted to the screen because of him, taking or leaving the rest.
What Disney chose to present in Secretariat is not a simple story of the triumph of a grand horse, but instead the story of a grand horse’s owner and the politics surrounding the racing world as a whole. Owner Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is a wholesome, Vietnam-era stay-at-home mother whose world turns upside down when her mother dies and she positions herself to take over the family’s racing farm. It is at this point the grand racehorse Secretariat is born, and suddenly Penny is forced to traverse two life paths at once. One is her home life with husband Jack (Nip/Tuck’s Dylan Walsh) and her children, who need everything from meals to advice. On the farm, Penny assumes her maiden name of Chenery and enters a world ripe with possibilities, one that requires an iron will, enough constitution to take big chances, and the ability to trust others. Both realities demand the world of Penny, and the film goes a long way to portray this, to invest us in its various complications without complicating the story itself.
Because Secretariat wants us to invest in each of the human aspects of horse racing, we’re never introduced to the world of the horses themselves. Couple this with the fact the horse races were expensive and difficult to produce, so sometimes the races are only shown through the lens of old footage on a TV screen or through newly filmed snippets, and you end up with gap-horse narrative. This creates a sort of mythos surrounding Secretariat, and we begin to see him as a figure an entire mini-culture is resting their hopes on. He is the Hercules and Zeus and Alexander of horse racing, and this is an interesting position to play. On the other hand, it means Secretariat is never portrayed as a character, a horse who plays jokes on his jockey and can be vain in front of photographers, and even occasionally fickle in a race. Because Secretariat is remembered as the greatest racehorse who ever lived, it’s fine to buy into him as a mythical figure, but we’re left feeling as if we’re missing key pieces of the picture.
Secretariat is based on the acclaimed biography, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, written by Bill Nack, who appears as a character portrayed by Entourage’s Kevin Connolly. The biography goes into great detail concerning each of the people who worked for and swayed Secretariat’s story. While the film builds up the relationship between Penny and her trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the other characters in Secretariat’s story never really develop. The film only hints at Penny’s other relationships, often introducing characters who take little part in the film, except to speak an innocuous line every now and again. This is most apparent in the figures of Secretariat’s jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thorwath), Penny’s confidante Miss Ham (Margo Martindale), and Secretariat’s caretaker Eddie Sweat (True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis). This is a shame in Ellis’ case, especially, both because he’s a good actor and because Sweat spent more time with Secretariat than any other human being. Ultimately, these characters become just another example of details that don’t add up, detracting from the story in small ways that add up.
Somehow, Secretariat redeems itself in is its ability to be extraordinarily watchable, even in spite of its various glaring errors, both factual and script-related. It’s sort of like 300 in that way. At Secretariat’s close, we find ourselves invested in its story, perhaps quite in spite of ourselves. We don’t mind not knowing the story of the jockey and the trainer and the loyal housekeeper; we don’t mind the numbing over-sharing we’ve gained from Penny. We believe in Secretariat, despite whatever pieces of mythos and showmanship they’ve cloaked him in. We believe in the dice landing on just the right numbers, the wheel turning to lock a fortune into place. We believe in the horse with the too-large heart and the crowd who bet on him at the Belmont, knowing their winnings would be small, and not minding. We believe in the race, and we are willing to go along with the rest.
Disney usually goes out of their way with Blu-Ray releases, throwing in a variety of features ranging from short, behind-the-scenes looks to random technology-oriented features. Secretariat’s Blu-Ray is no exception. The disc features commentary from director Randall Wallace, as well as an interview between Wallace and the real Penny Chenery. As far as these features go, if you’re running low on time, I’d say leave ‘em in favor of the featurettes.
The first long extra is called “Heart of a Champion," which shows each of Secretariat’s races, as well as giving them historical context. The second featurette explains the choreographing of each of the races in the film. Here, various production staff discuss everything from horse conditioning to the fact they would film each race in 3/8-of-a-mile legs to make sure each horse remained in the right order, down to the second. This segment goes a long way to explain why more horse racing was not present.
The final segment is a multi-angle simulation of the Preakness. In this bit, the Preakness is shown from five different angles, each angle accompanied by an audio voiceover. The different perspectives in these clips include that of a jockey, a reporter, a historian, a spectator, and someone involved in the actual race. While each of these clips is interesting in itself, it’s hard to take them as a whole, because it means watching the Preakness over and over and over again.
As a final note, Disney also offers a random segment featuring Timon and Pumbaa, and a music video. As usual, the Blu-Ray also features a DVD copy, but unlike Disney animated features, there is no digital copy. While these last features are not enticing, those that come before offer fresh glances into races that are only glossed over in the film itself.