Toon Talk: Secretariat Blu-Ray
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When it comes to sports biopics, the subgenre breaks down into two camps. First is the warts-and-all, blood-and-guts variety best exemplified by Raging Bull. Then just about everything else, from The Pride of the Yankees to Hoosiers to The Blind Side, easily fall into the second type: the “inspirational” kind. Filled with “rags to riches” stories, training montages and slow motion moments of triumph, these films are no doubt crowd-pleasers. Yet, after you’ve seen a few, they also become rather predictable, even interchangeable.
With its Disney brand and tame PG rating, it’s not hard to figure out what category Secretariat fits into; and while the film (now available on Disney DVD and Blu-ray) is definitely a family friendly one, you’re likely to feel that you’ve seen this race before… even if you haven’t seen Seabiscuit.
As the “super horse” that, in 1973, became the first racehorse to win the US Triple Crown in twenty-five years, Secretariat certainly could run fast, but he doesn’t say much. Therefore, the movie leans heavily on his owner, Peggy Chenery (played by the always welcome Diane Lane) to carry the story. Unfortunately, as a main character, Peggy is a bit of a cipher. Her motivation to race Secretariat, tied to fulfilling some unspoken dying wish of her father (Scott Glenn), is barely tangible, while attempts to show her as a “woman in a man’s world” fall flat. Subplots about the strain on her marriage and family (including, quite awkwardly, a wannabe hippie daughter) and her reluctance to speak in public go nowhere.
To compensate, director Randall Wallace (the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of Braveheart) and writer Mike Rich (who based his script on William Nack's book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion) try to throw some more obstacles in her way, mainly conflicts with her quirky horse trainer, Lucian Laurin. A French-Canadian former jockey who fancied loud outfits and unconventional training methods, Laurin is played by John Malkovich, the go-to guy in Hollywood for quirky characters (that is, when Christopher Walken is unavailable). Alas, Malkovich pretty much sleep walks through the role, relying on a string of goofy hats and sporadic outbursts in French for character development.
Struggling with that vacuum in the plot, Wallace and Rich strain to create “villains” for the protagonist, including her own husband (Dylan Walsh) and brother (Dylan Baker) and a gruff business man (James Cromwell) before finally settling on rival horse owner Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano, no stranger to such loud jerk roles). Shining brightly in supporting parts are familiar character actress Margo Martindale as Penny’s secretary and, as Secretariat’s kindly groomer, Nelsan Ellis (in a performance far removed from his flamboyant Lafayette on True Blood).
With all these stalls in the narrative, it is no wonder that the film’s best moments come when all the characters just step aside to let the horse run. With thrilling “you are there” camerawork from cinematographer Dean Semler (an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) and the quick cutting of editor John Wright (an Oscar nominee for Speed), the racing sequences truly come alive, delivering the dramatic tension the “slower” scenes lack.