Secretariat is the Galloping Gospel According to a Horse. Granted the horse is the equine king of kings.
Secretariat was directed by Randall Wallace who majored in religion at Duke. He was born in Tennessee, raised in the Southern gospel culture, and spent a year in the seminary, before a stint as manager of the animal show at Opryland, USA.
He is a director for all seasons.
The writer of Secretariat, Mike Rich -- who adapted William Nack's book -- also wrote the screenplay for The Nativity Story (2006), so Rich obviously thinks he knows his way around a stable. He certainly knows how to avoid those nasty droppings of reality.
Director Wallace goes with his heart more than his head -- Wallace wrote the screenplay for fellow zealous Christian Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995). But ironically he and Rich avoid mention of Secretariat's actual enlarged heart, which might make an effective symbol.
Secretariat is the story of Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane) and her struggle to hold onto her father's horse farm in Virginia. The movie focuses on her intrepid support of the exceptional superhorse Secretariat.
She has to leave her family in Denver, Colorado, to move to Virginia to the vulnerable horse farm and her chosen stallion.
Secretariat opens with a shot of heavenly sky that looks like a faded postcard -- accompanied by violins that never shut up. The horse isn't the lead; violins are. Diane Lane quotes a biblical verse about Job. Huh?
After the precredit sequence, we cut to 1969 and the Tweedy family -- four children and their parents -- in their kitchen. This may be the dullest family ever in a Disney movie.
One daughter is a war protester, but this movie makes Hippies look as though they are in a Norman Rockwell painting. I assume it's a sop to hoary liberals who are conservatives in their old age.
When one daughter performs singing "Silent Night" in an anti-war protest skit, while her mother lies on a bed in another city listening on the phone, it's beyond belief. Of course, it's an invented scene. What are you thinking, Randy? "Silent Night" in summer? If you buy this, you'll totally buy the movie.
The rest of us will have some problems. Purists certainly will. There is no mention of Riva Ridge who was instrumental in saving the Chenery farm, and Penny's influential sister isn't in the movie. There is slight mention of Angle Light who actually won the Wood Memorial against Secretariat and Sham. [Sham may be symbolic here.]
Penny's intimacy with her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh at his dullest) is limited to a peck on the cheek. In actuality, they were divorced in 1974, just one year after the Triple Crown. Not exactly a Christian success story.
And that music -- ceaseless stringy syrup. Wallace wrote four songs on the soundtrack. When Penny joins groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) sudsing up Secretariat, the soundtrack goes giddy with the gospel "Oh Happy Day." It's this movie's answer to "We Shall Overcome." And it's reprised at the end.
Secretariat is a movie of negligible writing and generic direction. Director Wallace himself has a big heart -- in 2000 he founded the Hollywood Habitat for Humanity.
But Wallace's soft spot is all-encompassing. He keeps turning authenticity into artificiality. In a scene showing the Preakness, Wallace uses the original telecast of the race. But he has the Stepford Tweedy family watch it on tv, turning it into a drab sequence.
The acting veers between thoroughbreds and donkeys. Diane Lane is substantial as Penny Chenery. John Malkovich adds flair to a movie that desperately needs some. He is engaging as the incorrigible trainer Lucien Laurin.
All the family members -- except Penny -- are dull. The actors seem to be trying to emulate Scott Glenn, but his role is supposed to be nearly comatose. Theirs aren't.
Nelsan Ellis lacks any hint of personality as Eddie Sweat. There are a lot of useless shots of him reacting with his one expression.
Actual jockey Otto Thorwarth -- like Gary Stevens in Seabiscuit (2003) -- is convincing as a rider. He portrays Ron Turcotte. Thorwarth was a member of Indiana's Vevay Assembly Church, and rode at Beulah and River Downs, my old stomping grounds.
Secretariat shows that religion and horses make strange barnfellows.
Secretariat is a movie that tries to serve two masters -- God and Disney.
That's a hell of an exacta.