Secretariat, the 1973 super horse, was no Seabiscuit. And that creates problems that "Secretariat," the movie, never overcomes. A well-acted tale of an underdog's triumph that sorely lacks an underdog, it teeters between pleasantly generic film biography and rank manipulation.
Diane Lane stars as Penny Chenery, the plucky, rich Virginia horsewoman who wouldn't let her daddy's family farm be sold and who gambled, wheeled and dealt on the hooves of Big Red to save it.
"You run your race, Penny," Daddy (Scott Glenn) always told her. So she's not about to let a pushy sibling (Dylan Walsh) sell the place after Daddy dies. She endures separation from her own family, back in Colorado, the sexism of the Old Boys' network of thoroughbred breeders of the 1960s and '70s and resolves to make a go of it with Meadow Farm.
She got the farm back on its feet, found success, and then found Secretariat and had the good sense to hang onto him as the going got tough. She hired a trainer, given a wild-eyed and wild-wardrobed French-Canadian eccentricity by John Malkovich.
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Lane gives some emotional heft to Chenery, but there aren't enough scenes showing what she's giving up (watching her kids grow up). And we're left with bland exhortations to the horse and about the horse.
"Secretariat is not afraid! And neither am I!"
The film leaves the previous year's Meadow Farm Triple Crown threat, Riva Ridge, and the riches that horse delivered mostly out of the story. The script invents situations and characters and lapses into melodrama pretty much every time it does.
But many are the charms of watching Lane go toe to toe with that playful old pro, James Cromwell (as a rich rival who can't help but be nice to her). And Malkovich chews up the scenery, a necessity here when your central character is a horse.
Director Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers") rarely finds the poetry in this horse tale, with the racing scenes never quite hitting their stride, never sending the chills that the great horse pictures — from "The Black Stallion" through "Seabiscuit" — delivered.
What he's made is the trailer to a much better movie, one that might have earned the too-early Oscar buzz that swirled, briefly, around Lane a couple of months ago.
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell Director: Randall Wallace Running time: 2 hours Rating: PG for brief mild language