Secretariat may be the greatest race horse of all time, but somehow that isn’t enough to rate him a starring role in his own movie. Instead Secretariat all but ignores the horse it’s named after in favor of telling the tedious, mostly irrelevant story of his owner. Let’s call her Diane Lane. As portrayed on film, the sum total of Diane Lane’s contribution to Secretariat’s racing career amounts to firing an employee, losing a coin toss, and refusing to pay her taxes on time. That’s it. But the movie takes a full two hours to show us that, while in the background this amazing race horse just sort of sits there, treated like lawn furniture the movie and its characters fail to develop any sort of connection or relationship with.
This blindingly obvious flaw in the film’s construction might be forgivable if the things it chose to focus on instead were in any way interesting, but they’re not. Diane Lane is the movie’s sole interest and she, unfortunately, seems to have no personality. She’s a fairly bland housewife who just sort of scowls and looks stubborn whenever anyone suggests something she doesn’t like. We spend endless, tedious minutes with her while she just sort of sits there and looks like an owner, until at some point she gets involved enough to try and construct some sort of complicated, generally irrelevant Ponzi scheme. The movie occasionally drops in throwaway lines about her ownership skills, but it’s merely lip service and much like her frequently discussed relationship with the horse, not something actually shown in the movie. Secretariat chooses to tell instead of show, and if there’s a worse mistake any movie can make, I can’t name it.
The rest of the script’s characters are even worse. Diane’s husband is an asshole cliché, her brother an empty plot device who exists only to serve as an easily overcome obstacle. Her kids and the other people she surrounds herself seem to be in the movie primarily to give hugs. Secretariat contains more hugging than actual racing. The closest anyone comes to having an honest to god personality is Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin. Unfortunately, his personality is John Malkovich’s personality. I don’t know if Malkovich actually researched Laurin before playing him or simply read the script and concluded that this was clearly a paycheck movie so why bother, but whatever the reason, John Malkovich basically plays John Malkovich. It’s not acting, exactly, but at least he has some semblance of a personality and at least he’s entertaining. That’s more than anyone else in the movie has going for them.
Yet in the all too rare moments when Secretariat actually gets down to racing it becomes almost genuinely entertaining. It’s not because of the way the movie’s races are filmed, mostly they’re a disaster of shaky footage shot on what would appear to be camcorders without the benefit of color correction. At least the good scenes are shot that way. Sometimes the movie doesn’t even give us that much. It’s a film that cares so little about the horse it’s named after that one of Secretariat’s biggest and most important races is, quite literally, spent showing people in their living room reacting to the race on television rather than letting us see the action.
No, Secretariat doesn’t give a shit about the horse or his races, and it shows. But they’re exciting anyway because the horse, no matter how much they don’t fucking seem to care at all about him in this movie, is insanely exciting. The movie’s final race is incredible, not because it’s close but because Secretariat runs like some sort of crazed, hyper-real racing machine which blows every other animal off the track. It’s like going to a NASCAR race and watching one of the cars, out of nowhere, take off and launch itself into space. It’s incredible because it really happened, and because even decades later no horse has ever beaten his record. You’ll cheer during the racing sequences because there was a good movie in here to be made, not because director Randall Wallace and his Disney cohorts actually made one. They haven’t. This sucks.
What Secretariat has done, however, is make an incredibly convincing case for why someone should probably get to work on making a new movie out of The Black Stallion. The problem with making any horse racing film based on a true story is, well, that real life horse racing is boring. The truth is that the horses are just property to the owners and the jockeys don’t really have any sort of connection with them beyond sitting with them on race day. Real life horse racing is often as cold and indifferent to the animals as Secretariat is. In fiction though, in a story like The Black Stallion, horse racing comes alive through the connection between a man and his stallion. Enough with real life. If you’re going to make a horse movie, make a connection with the horse, or don’t bother. Make it about bicycles instead. What’s the difference?