Movie Review: Secretariat (2010)

Disney inspirational with top-tier actors __ 8/10
Reviewed by Brian Wright

SecretariatPenny Chenery: More than three thousand years ago a man named Job complained to God about all his troubles and the Bible tells us that God answered: “Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paused fiercely, rejoicing in his strength and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing, He does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against his side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.”

Directed by Randall Wallace
Book William Nack
Screenplay Mike Rich

Diane Lane … Penny Chenery
John Malkovich … Lucien Laurin
Dylan Walsh … Jack Tweedy
Margo Martindale … Miss Ham
Nelsan Ellis … Eddie Sweat
Otto Thorwarth … Ronnie Turcotte
Fred Thompson … Bull Hancock
James Cromwell … Ogden Phipps
Scott Glenn … Chris Chenery

Not to say that I regard everyone on board in key roles as a first-rate actor, but definitely top-tier… in the sense of adequate and celebrated. Forgive me for starting out reflecting on whether Diane Lane who plays the principal character Penny Chenery—principal aside from the horse of the millennium—is one of the stellar actresses of our time. She clearly is not; you can say the same for, say, Keanu Reeves: they became known for early roles (Lonesome Dove and The Matrix, respectively) and got rich and famous. I can’t diss them; they work hard, for the most part fit the roles they take, but lack the stuff (and the roles) for being singularly compelling.

So Diane Lane is not the Secretariat of actors. Who cares. It’s possible that for this movie she was intentionally subdued by the director. She makes a convincing Penny Chenery, whose courage and persistence is the substory of this semi-documentary, Secretariat. As the daughter of Chris Chenery (Scott Glenn), a struggling and ailing horse ranch owner in Virginia, Penny takes over the ranch upon his demise. The remainder of the movie follows more or less as a ‘simple accounting’ of Penny, her trainer Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), select friends and family, and, of course, the horse.[1] And in that ‘simple accounting’ lies the controversy I’m seeing in the reviews on IMDb. Let me excerpt one here, from Suzette Howard (

My grandmother was a parent during the ’50’s and liked everything neat and clean and in its place…. Secretariat was a GREAT horse and deserved a GREAT movie. I felt like Grandma edited this movie…. The movie is so safe and there wasn’t anything safe about the facts that surround this horse and his rise to be the greatest race horse that ever lived.

Still today, when I watch Secretariat run on YouTube, I cry!!! I’m not sure why, but the tears flow from the depths of my being. Rationally, I try to tell myself that he is just a horse, but something overcomes me every time, no matter how many times I watch him run. That overwhelming surge of emotion is what this story deserved….

I expected so much more from director Randall Wallace. The power and emotion of Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Pearl Harbor, The Man in the Iron Mask is what Secretariat deserves. Where was that? … I felt like the accomplishments of Penny Chenery and Secretariat have been shrunk down and placed into a nice, neat little box….

Diane Lane is one of my favorite actresses; however, her role left me doubting the character. For example, when a woman talks to her horse, she does more than look into his eye for a few seconds and say, “Well OK then.” When a woman truly needs to know something from her horse she breathes him in, they breathe each other in ….

The audience should have been allowed to feel the emotional range that surrounds all involved in preparing a horse for the greatest races any thoroughbred will ever run. Just watch horse racing on television and you will see real raw emotion that these people explode with at the end of the race. So much was on the line for everyone involved and yet throughout the movie everyone handled the stress with subdued emotion, never getting too far off the scale….

… I am simply sharing with the reader my disappointment in what I thought would be a thrilling tribute to a horse so deserving. Ron Turcotte said the film captured the story “pretty well.” I ask you, is “pretty well” good enough for the greatest race horse who ever ran on the track? Secretariat’s heart was two and a half times the size of a normal horse’s heart; I feel the portrayal of his story should have been two and a half times the size of any regular movie….

This is a great review by Ms. Howard and so heartfelt it practically leaps off the page with emotion. The full review is contained on this page. All I have to say to Suzette and several others who more or less state this is a good movie, not a great movie, is they’re right. But it’s a very good movie.

My sensitivity is that although Secretariat was a larger than life creature, its human caretakers were pretty much ordinary. Certainly not larger than life or full of der Sturm und Drang (the storm and fury) that colors so many heroic figures of history. Penny is a quiet champion, and I’m good with that; same with Lucien, who is prideful and colorful in his way, but as interpreted by Malkovich (certainly properly) Lucien is a mild-mannered pursuer of perfection. The jockey Ronnie Turcotte, played by Otto Thorwarth, certainly is as competitive and tough as any to ride, and that comes through.

What I think the Secretariat movie naysayers are missing is the key virtue of the film: it gets the humans out of the way and keeps the viewer’s focus on the horse. At least that’s how I take it. By doing so, we—many of whom know nothing about horse racing—see how greatness sometimes drags mundane people into its orbit. I thrilled to all of the scenes in which Secretariat was featured and can feel a true human kinship with Penny, Miss Ham, SunFLOWerRonnie, Lucien, and the rest of the entourage. It helped me see and experience the peak of excitement that can only come from seeing a sentient, living being break all the barriers. Wonderful film, wonderful job. Perfect to keep on hand for a powerful pickmeup.

[1] Five horses played the part of Secretariat. “Trolley Boy,” the principle horse used was selected by Penny Chenery in a Secretariat look-alike contest in Kentucky, and even walked the Red Carpet at the film premiere in Hollywood. The five horses, four thoroughbreds and a quarter horse were made up with special makeup to replicate the three “white socks,” facial stripe and star. The horse used in most of the closeups is named “Longshot.” Although “Trolley Boy” looked more like Secretariat overall, Longshot was deemed more “close-up friendly.”

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