Riva Ridge was omitted from the movie. Lucien Laurin was not nearly as eccentric as he was written. Pancho Martin was not nearly as over-the-top. Ogden Phipps never made a hard offer for Secretariat after his 2-year-old season. When and where the jockeys were wearing silks was not consistent with reality. The script leads the audience to believe Sham won the 1973 Wood Memorial, not Angle Light. And a myriad of other details, large and small, were misrepresented or flat out wrong.
Yet for the purposes of Secretariat, none of this matters. Very few people in the packed house at the Baxter Avenue Theater in Louisville noticed the inaccuracies and judging from the loud ovation at the end of the film, even fewer cared.
This is a moving story of a woman who tests her own limits to save her family's horse farm. Cliché? Of course it is. Secretariat is a sports movie above all else and this genre falls in love with the predictable underdog storyline nearly every time. To expect anything more than that would be like expecting Keith Olbermann to keynote the Republican National Convention.
So the litmus test for Secretariat should not be whether it's historically accurate or twisted into a cliché pretzel, but instead whether the story of Penny Chenery and her super horse “Big Red” was emotionally gripping enough to bring the masses to see a movie about horse racing. With this as the measure, Disney's newest movie is a big success.
We begin in the Tweedy (Ms. Chenery's married name) home around the kitchen table with the typical family chaos. The family is made up of a politically active daughter, two rambunctious boys, another daughter we learn almost nothing about throughout the movie and an attorney father who is already treating his wife like she's more his errand girl than the love of his life. All of this changes with a phone call giving her the news of her recently deceased mother and we are instantly whisked off to Meadow Farm in Virginia. Here we meet the rest of the Chenery clan including an very frail Mr. Chenery, obviously well past his prime.
At the end of the funeral, Bull Hancock, played with a soothing ease by Fred Thompson, and his son Seth pull Penny aside to see what she plans to do with the farm. When she says she needs a new trainer, Hancock suggests she meet with retired trainer Lucien Laurin played with the classic zeal and eccentricity that John Malkovich has built a career on.
It's when Malkovich first steps on the screen that Secretariat kicks into overdrive. The veteran character actor makes every scene he touches infinitely better and the chemistry between him and Diane Lane (Chenery) is engaging and real. Lane herself is no slouch, capturing the inner strength that is Chenery's hallmark, but is sometimes bogged down by an inadequate script that too often takes the easy road out of tough situations.
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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie is Otto Thorwarth who, despite no previous acting experience, pulls off the fiery grit of Ron Turcotte so expertly that he is sure to earn much critical praise. Word is that his role was actually beefed up part of the way through the shooting of the movie because the producers were so pleasantly surprised with the chops of this jockey turned screen actor.
Racing fans will enjoy discovering actors playing well-known racing figures surrounding the story of Secretariat including Bill Nack, Andy Beyer, Ogden Phipps and Eddie Sweat (played with a simple nobility by Nelsan Ellis who also happens to be a former classmate of mine at Illinois State University). Even Mike Battaglia makes a cameo, running a press conference between the connections of Secrtariat and Sham.
But nothing in this movie compares to the emotion of the racing scenes. This is where director Randall Wallace gets it most right. The power of these animals, the speed of their endeavor and the sound of their hooves sent chills down my spine and made my entire body tingle with excitement. If every race could be captured with this expertise, our industry would be fighting new fans off with a stick.
And it's because of these racing scenes that from an industry perspective, Secretariat is a huge hit. It's hard to imagine anyone not being open to going to the racetrack after the emotional pull of these scenes. Now it's incumbent on the industry to capitalize on what will surely be a box office hit.
The Paulick Report's Scott Jagow interviewed some audience members last night to get their take on the movie. Below are the two video interviews, including the family of Kentucky's Secretary of State Trey Grayson.
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