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The Independent Critic

Diane Lane, John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn
Randall Wallace
Mike Rich, William Nack (book)
Rated PG
116 Mins.
Walt Disney Co.
Heart of A Champion
• 3 Deleted Scenes with optional audio commentary by director Randall Wallace
• Music video - AJ Michalka "It's Who You Are"
*Blu-Ray has quite a few more!

 "Secretariat" Review 
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The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Neither the picture of cinematic perfection proclaimed by Roger Ebert nor the travesty suggested by such folks as the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morganstern and L.A. Weekly's Nick Schager, Secretariat is a small film made bigger by the collective Hollywood power of Walt Disney and the much more effective than one might expect performance from Hollywood's everywoman, Diane Lane.

Lane portrays Penny Chenery, who takes over her ailing father's (Scott Glenn) financially troubled Meadow Stables. A 1969 coin toss that she "loses" leads to her receiving an unborn foal of the horse Somethingroyal, and her informed studies of the horse's lineage suggests to her that this unborn foal will become a prized horse.

Indeed, it does.

It's of no detriment to the film that virtually anyone with an interest in this film or horse racing will be aware of the story of Secretariat and, thus, the film itself is more an inspiring tale about greatness realized and the faith of owner Penny Chenery in ignoring the gender defining pleadings of her husband (Dylan Walsh), her economist brother who wants to sell the horse to pay off the estate's taxes (Dylan Baker), the myriad of mostly male stable owners whose sexism seeks to limit her, the sexist owner of Secretariat's primary rival (Nestor Serrano) or anyone else who dares to express that she may not be up to this task.

Chenery garners some support from the wealthy owner (James Cromwell) from whom she'd "lost" the coin toss, and she puts together a team that includes the eccentric trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), jockey Ron Turcotte (real life jockey Otto Thorwarth), groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) and assistant Miss Ham (Margo Martindale).

Secretariat is a well cast film, with Lane adding tremendous substance and pizzazz to a role that could have easily been turned into a cookie-cutter inspirational "rah rah" type in lesser hands. Lane humanizes richly Chenery's experience in butting heads with the male dominated culture of the early 70's in horse racing, while also infusing her with just enough vulnerability to affirm convincingly Chenery's otherworldly connection with her champion horse. Malkovich is appropriately reined in and disciplined here, providing the film with its comic relief without crossing the line into caricature. Nestor Serrano is appropriately smarmy, while James Cromwell does what seemingly only James Cromwell can do convincingly in portraying a man who by all rights ought to be snobbish but ends up being a delight.  

Screenwriter Mike Rich, who penned the similarly inspirational Miracle and The Rookie, has generally fashioned together a feel good film with lots of inspirational platitudes even if he does occasionally cross the line into schmaltzy dialogue and one too many soundbyte affirmations.

Dean Semler's camera work is inventive and exciting, managing to build anticipation even when we all know how a race is going to end. The camera during the Belmont Stakes race is particularly astounding, an invigorating and exciting race beautifully captured.

Far better than its less than impressive trailers might suggest, Secretariat is right at home among the upper echelon of Disney's feel good, inspirational films even if for once we're not exactly dealing with an underdog story. Featuring a wonderful ensemble cast that wrings every dramatic and inspirational moment from the story possible, Secretariat may very well find itself a winner by 31 lengths at the box-office despite a crowd of new films on opening weekend.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic