A feel-good family film, Secretariat is a true story about an inspirational race horse and the lives he touches. Out on Blu-Ray this week, this underdog-overcomes-all-odds tale is a fuzzy drama that will leave you feeling all warm inside. Housewife and mother of four in the late 1960s, Penny Chenery (played with unremarkable efficiency by Diane Lane) has her hands full. The death of her mother draws her back to the family stables, and unintentionally into the journey of a lifetime.
Penny is trying to save what remains of her father’s failing estate. They’re horse people, in every sense of the word. It doesn’t take long, after studying the books, for Penny to find out that mismanagement has almost bankrupt Meadow Stables. She promptly fires the trainer (who has been dabbling in fraud), and takes matters into her own hands.
When she comes on the scene, Penny discovers that two mares in the stables are pregnant. Two foals due, and each one sired by a stallion famous for speed. After studying the lines of each mare, she decides that the foal of one of them might just have the gift of speed, and the gift of stamina. A combination that might lead to a great race horse.
Soon she is immersed in the future of “Big Red,” (aka Secretariat), betting her future, and the future of Meadow Stables, on his success. She believes he can do the unthinkable and become the next Triple Crown winner (when there hadn’t been one in 25 years.) To make her dreams for Secretariat come true, she hires famed horse trainer Lucien Laurin. John Malkovich steals the show with his over-the-top performance as the quirky and temperamental horse trainer. His wardrobe alone deserves an Oscar. And next to the lukewarm performance by Lane, Malkovich’s performance dazzles.
Audiences may go into this movie thinking they will remain untouched by the story of yet another racehorse, however remarkable. But with great racing shots, plenty of face time with “Big Red,” and grand rising orchestral music, this film will have you at the edge of your seat yelling “move your bloomin’ arse!”
An interesting note; the horse-handler Eddie Sweat, a member of the “inner-circle” around Secretariat, was played by Nelsan Ellis. Anyone who has seen True Blood will no doubt recognize Ellis as the flamboyantly gay short-order cook Lafayette. Having that character in my mind whenever I saw Ellis, it was hard to buy him as the gentle, mild-mannered Eddie Sweat. I’m not one to encourage typecasting, but an actor can’t just jump from a character like Lafayette to anything else, without a little mental jarring on the part of the audience.
The movie as a whole works so well because it tugs on the heart-strings, as most “animal hero” films do. Audiences sympathize with Secretariat, and are drawn into the story even if they don’t want to be. What keeps this from being one of those films that blows you away and you can’ stop thinking about, is the well-worn “underdog-overcomes-all-odds” scenario. Yes, it’s touching. No, it’s not inventive, novel or fresh. As smooth as the film is, it’s the same recipe as almost every other “famous” horse racing film I’ve seen. I don’t want to use the word “generic,” but outstanding performances aside it’s a cookie-cutter film. A cute cookie-cutter film, but one you’ve seen in many guises before.
This and one other complaint keep me from giving it an outstanding rating. There’s no doubt this film is an inspirational one. That being said, the story itself covers the “inspiration” stuff; no need for the screenwriters to force it down our throats with sometimes trite “motivational” dialogue. Here’s an example: swelling music, a sweet soft sunset, Diane Lane looking off into the distance and petting Secretariat, then comes some deep glances shared between horse and owner, unspoken communication, then Lane starts talking about hope and dreams and… you get the picture. To me, it feels unnecessary and contrived at that point, and to add a motivational speech on top of all that unspoken inspiration feels like the filmmakers are cramming it down my throat.
As far as Blu-Ray goodies go, this one is packed full. Here’s what we get.
- Director’s Audio Commentary
- Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation
- Heart of a Champion
- A Director’s Inspiration
- Choreographing the Races
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Director’s Commentary
- Music Video
- Trailer Navigation
The audio commentary with director Randall Wallace (of Braveheart fame, and Pearl Harbor infamy) is a fairly enjoyable listen. The “Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation“, is a featurette of the actual race and a computer simulated version of the race. The simulated race is discussed and broken down by a professional jockey and other experts in the field. “Heart of a Champion” is a series of interviews with Penny and the cast and crew of the movie as the story behind the horse is told. Wallace and Penny have a real-life conversation about the efforts at authenticity in the film in “A Director’s Inspiration.” There’s a bit on race choreographing as well as deleted scenes and a music video of inspirational song “It’s Who You Are” by singer AJ Michalka. I’m glad to see Blu-Ray releases like this; heavy on the extras and worth the money.
The Blu-Ray visuals are great, with the clarity of high def showing off the soft, smooth cinematography of the film. The great romantic lighting is set to its best advantage and the rich vibrant colours look gorgeous. Digital anomalies are thankfully absent and detail is fine as can be. Skin tones come off as natural and textures are fairly crisp. Black levels could be better and some of the horse racing scenes don’t look all that great, there are also some soft shots here and there. Overall though, it’s fairly strong transfer.
When it comes to audio, the Blu-Ray delivers. The thunderous roar of the horse’s hoofs crash through your speakers, drawing you in. The race scenes are the highlight and they really do sound great. Surround sound in these scenes is particularly pleasing. Impressive directionality is found throughout and Nick Glennie-Smith’s score sounds wonderful. A bit of dialogue is drowned out here and there but like the video, it’s still a strong transfer.
So at the end of the day, we get a pretty good film with Secretariat. Malkovich is wonderful as usual and we get a truly inspirational story with some thrilling race sequences. The film looks good enough on Blu-Ray and there’s an acceptable amount of special features. It’s not a perfect package but if you saw the film in theatres you’ll probably be pleased with what’s offered here. If you haven’t seen it yet, and you’re looking for an enjoyable, inspirational film, you may want to check this one out.
Secretariat offers an inspirational story, great racing sequences and a wonderful performance from John Malkovich.