We’ll start with the positives: Diane Lane is gorgeous, and it helps considerably that she’s in virtually every scene. The film is well-acted. It’s based on a true story. Secretariat is arguably the best race horse ever. Um…I’m running dry here.
Unfortunately: This is not so much the story of Secretariat as it is the story of Secretariat’s owner. Since owners of horses don’t really do a whole lot other than, you know, own horses, a lot of drama had to be manufactured. The jockeys, the trainers, the stablehands, well, they do the actual work. Any of theirs would have been a more compelling tale. Instead we see them in limited, very clichÃ©d supporting roles. “Secretariat: A Horse and Her Owner” would have been a more accurate if not better title.
The film attempts to link Secretariat’s greatness to the women’s liberation and the anti-war movements of the early 1970s and to apply a Christian veneer to the owner’s faith in her horse (we open with a voiceover of Job 39:19-24), the latter of which is not wholly off-putting at the start but certainly is by the end when a Gospel choir seems to be equating a race horse with Jesus. These flaws, while egregious, are not the worst of it.
The conflicts in this movie are either quickly resolved (evil trainer is fired), nonsensical (inheritance tax of $6 million can only be paid by the sale of Secretariat), or forgotten (family issues conveniently disappear). The evil trainer scene was so trite that it was painful to watch. The inheritance tax issue which was to become the central conflict, driving all manner of choices and decisions, made no sense. If the farm is worth enough that they will owe $6 million in estate tax, the farm and its assets must be worth more than that because the US estate tax rate has never been 100 percent or, I guess in this case, more. (In real life, Secretariat did not save the farm. It was saved the year before by Secretariet’s stable mate Riva Ridge who won 2 out of 3 Triple Crown races.) Finally, the family issues: Mom is gone an awful lot, Dad is rightly aggrieved, and the kids don’t seem to care. Well, these all disappear in the last act, because who needs that kind of unresolvable unpleasantness when Secretariat runs so fast? It’s a horrible bait-and-switch because it means all the family issues that drive the first act are filler.
This is the type of movie you get when the writing stinks. Disney’s live action films have this tendency (“Remember the Titans” indeed), because theirs is a saccharin vision that never was or will be. Real conflict with messy complications and difficult choices has no place in their world. Unfortunately, that means there is little to be gained in watching their live action films. Despite the greatness of the horse, Secretariat is a case in point.