Secretariat -- Film Review

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Mayhem Pictures and its producer/partners Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray have successfully hit upon a formula for making inspiring sports movies, and "Secretariat," the story of the world's greatest racehorse, is no exception. Written by Mike Rich, who wrote "The Rookie" and "Miracle" for Mayhem, the film manages to find a way around the seeming disadvantage of making a movie about a horse likely to win every race. Rich and director Randall Wallace do so by focusing not on its eponymous hero but on his female owner.

The film thus takes on a feminist tone as a Denver housewife (well-played by Diane Lane) goes up against the old boys who dominate horse racing.

Consequently, "Secretariat" might be one sports movie that draws a significant share of female viewers. The film looks primed for a decent theatrical payoff for Disney, especially with older viewers and the "faith-based" audience Disney has courted online. The film should be a solid performer on all TV platforms and home video.

In a career spanning only 16 months, Secretariat became a true legend. Altogether, the deep-chested, muscular, chestnut stallion won 16 of his 21 career races, with three seconds and one third, for in-the-money finishes in 20-of-21 starts. So this movie definitely is not about an improbable underdog like "Seabiscuit" was.

The thrill here for audiences is akin to going up against criminal baddies with Dirty Harry on your side or entering the boxing ring with Muhammad Ali. If you know anything about horse-race history, you can't wait until you see how the movie stages the famous 1973 Belmont Stakes.

The movie seeks its dramatic conflict between races in the battles of the stallion's owner and true believer, Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) -- who takes over the Virginia-based Meadow Stables from her ailing dad (Scott Glenn) -- for she inherits a stud farm deeply in debt and, upon her father's death, owes hefty estate taxes.

Nonetheless, her unshakable faith in this miracle horse extends even to before his birth. A 1969 coin toss, originally agreed to by her father, determines which of two foals sired by Bold Ruler, one of most important stallions of that day, will go to the winner. Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), a wealthy breeder and owner, wins the toss and makes his selection. Penny whispers that she actually got her wish: She wants the unborn foal of Somethingroyal.

She guessed right.

Aligned against Penny and her horse, whom everyone calls Big Red, are a wall of sexist men starting with a corrupt trainer she immediately fires. Then there is Penny's tradition-minded husband (Dylan Walsh), who wants her back home minding the stove and washing machine; her economist brother (Dylan Baker), who wants the horse sold to pay the estate taxes; and a belligerent owner (Nestor Serrano) of Secretariat's only racetrack rival, Sham. Misogynistic remarks and slights fail to deter Penny, who runs roughshod over the male world of racing. And she can because she has the best horse.

Her team is nearly all-male as well: Veteran trainer and all-around eccentric Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, reigning in his usual exuberance only slightly), who gives the movie its needed color by dressing, as one character puts it, "like Superfly"; tough-as-nails jockey Ron Turcotte (excellently played by real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth); and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who believes he knows what horses think. Penny's one female assistant is Miss Ham (a motherly Margo Martindale).

The film's other prominent speaking roles are barely necessary. As Penny's daughter Kate, Disney recording star AJ Michalka gets a chance to sing and, when Kate turns into something of a hippie, to trivialize the whole counterculture/anti-war movement of that era. Kevin Connolly and Eric Lange play two cartoonish reporters who never venture into the press box.

Lane, in a series of wigs to portray the blond Penny Tweedy, holds the film together with a sturdy performance that suggests, in moments, a mystical connection between horse and owner. Malkovich gives the film its comic relief as the French-Canadian trainer who after a long career has a winner to make up for all those painful big losses.

The races are well shot, with five horses needed to play the one superhorse in all his glory.

Opens: Friday, Oct. 8 (Disney)
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures presents a Mayhem Pictures production
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenwriter: Mike Rich
Suggested by: "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion" by William Mack
Producers: Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi
Executive producers: Bill Johnson, Mike Rich
Director of photography: Dean Stemler
Production designer: Tom Sanders
Music: Nick Glennie-Smith
Costume designer: Michael T. Boyd
Editor: John Wright
Rated PG, 122 minutes