DVD Release Date:  January 25, 2011
Theatrical Release Date:  October 8, 2010
Rating:  PG (for brief mild language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  116 min.
Director:  Randall Wallace
Cast:  Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Nelsan Ellis, Kevin Connolly 

Secretariat is a quintessential family film in this respect: there's nothing to complain about and nothing to rave about.  It's safe, conventional, professional; an old-fashioned movie made up of warm fuzzies.  In short, Secretariat is as inoffensive as it is ineffectual.

Given that live-action family fare is so rare at theaters, there's little pleasure in taking such a "wet blanket" stance on this one.  For the record, I'd recommend this to families without reservation or hesitation.  Just don't expect greatness, despite the pedigree (pun intended). 

Based on the famed racehorse from the early 1970s, Secretariat tells the story of the woman behind the steed—Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane).  A content stay-at-home mom, her life takes an unexpected turn when her father becomes ill in 1969.  What begins as two days of liquidating the assets of his Virginia farm evolves into a passion not simply for horse-racing but one special horse in particular—"the horse that nobody wanted."

That quote is just one of several ways the screenplay works to establish Secretariat as an underdog.  So, too, is its new owner Penny Tweedy.  She is a woman in a man's world at a time when that was a much bigger social obstacle than it is now.  Not to worry, though; she has enough gumption to make Sandra Bullock blush.  It's easy to imagine the pitch for this film: "It's Seabiscuit meets The Blind Side!"

Suffice it to say, Penny's spirit gives her plenty of chances to tell off old white guys.  Nothing will stop her; she'll barge into a Men's Only Country Club if she has to (and does)—stern, but always with the most gracious demeanor.  Her politely-scripted sass leaves no room for comebacks.

Likewise, the movie leaves little room for suspense, but contrary to what you might think the titular horse's legendary exploits aren't really to blame.  For a real-life story, the too-perfect-to-be-true screenplay follows every formulaic beat and cliché.  Even if you don't know the history, you know exactly where this is going. 

Moments of anxiety and struggle carry little weight because there's always an inspiring monologue to diffuse any doubt.  Even when all the facts and odds are stacked against them, who can argue with a beautiful speech about faith and belief, right?  Or a serious injury to the horse? Nothing a little bit of Penny's horse-whispering can't fix.

What keeps the predictable proceedings from being outright dull is a talented cast giving its best, along with a polished, nostalgic aesthetic.  Joining Diane Lane is John Malkovich as veteran trainer Lucien Laurin, a man not intimidated by odds or strong women.  Colorful in both personality and wardrobe, Malkovich makes him a fun eccentric.  Still, while he and Lane are clearly the counter-culture progressives, their edge is only played as cute.

The rest of the cast, limited by the script, simply fill stock roles.  Margo Martindale offers a supportive side of spunk to Penny's sass as the best friend Miss Ham, Nelsan Ellis is Secretariat's wise African-American caretaker Eddie Sweat, while Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker and James Cromwell eventually get past their patriarchal hang-ups.  Even the reporters feel like they've been lifted from the '40s, not the '70s (an apt metaphor for the film itself). 


On the flip side, the owner of Secretariat's biggest challenger is an openly, unrepentant misogynist pig.  It's not enough to want Secretariat to win; apparently we must actively hate the competition, too.  The film's broad over-simplifications undercut any sense of realism or dimension.

As handsomely mounted as it all is, the overall tone director Randall Wallace (screenwriter for Braveheart) takes is just too soft.  We are constantly told the stakes but we never feel them.  No matter how dire the circumstance, we know that a little faith will make everything okay. 

The staging of actual races also lacks imagination, especially during the second-leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness.  That we see it entirely on a TV set in a living room may give us that moment of family support, but it's also dramatically flat.  For a film that's supposed to inspire, the direction does anything but.

History itself is seen through rose-colored glasses, the most obvious example being the sanitized depiction of hippies (of which Penny's eldest daughter is, with her mother's support).  Nothing offensive is endorsed or depicted; your average church youth group is more rebellious than what's seen here.  They're simply well-intentioned youth with a social conscience.

To temper any concern from the faith community, other elements seem intentionally added for believers: an introductory citation from Job, the use of Christian spirituals, and the combination of both at the climactic moment.  I'd say evangelicals were being pandered to if the use of each weren't so sincerely rendered.

Wallace also resorts to easy gags and standard feel-good moments.  Horse intentionally pees on foot of annoying reporter?  Check.  Cast grooves to 1960s soul song in a montage?  The Staple Singers' classic "I'll Take You There" has it covered.

Secretariat is not a bad film, which is about the highest praise one can muster for a film so methodically rote.  For a story about a Rebel Owner, Rebel Trainer, and Rebel Jockey turning an underdog horse into the Greatest of All Time, this is safe to a fault.  The air of inevitability permeates every scene and saps the tension out of every conflict.  But can you take the kids to it?  Sure.  If they're able to slog through the family drama, they'll probably enjoy the horse.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Drinks at social events, but very benign and no drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity:  One use of the word "hell."
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence/Other:  Intense/dramatic racing sequences, but no actual violence.



Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com
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