Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Horses are People, Too -- Reflections on "Secretariat" (2010)

Secretariat is considered by some to be the greatest athlete in history. His success in winning the Triple Crown, and the way in which he won it, is a feat that still ranks among the best. Certainly Big Red was the greatest horse of all-time, his track records at the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes still standing after 37 years.

Secretariat is a pretty good movie, albeit nowhere near as majestic as its subject. It's a feel-good affair, filled with a plucky protagonist, an underdog horse, eccentric supporting characters, and a happy ending. Mostly it's a paint-by-numbers sports movie, but the acting and direction keep it from being typical cliched drivel.

Penny Chenery-Tweedy (Diane Lane) is a suburban housewife and mother who comes to the rescue of her father's stables after her mother's death. We discover that she has been a lifelong horse enthusiast and takes to rebuilding her family's business with purpose and zeal. Unfortuantely the business needs a great horse to breathe new life into it and Penny looks to get that horse in a coin toss agreement between her father (Scott Glenn) and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell). She loses the coin toss, but wins the horse her instinct tells her is the true winner.

That horse is Big Red, and isn't he something. During a gorgeously shot birthing scene we discover that he's the rare colt that is able to stand right away. Eventually, as Red grows up, we learn that he is built to run, built for speed, and has a stubborn streak in him. Penny finds the right trainer for Red in the eccentric Lucin Laurin (John Malkovich), a tempermental man with a penchant for cursing in French at those who cross him.

Penny begins to race Big Red under the name Secretariat and the rest is history. Secretariat is a film in which spoilers don't matter because the ending is pretty well known already. The horse wins and wins big. The treat of the movie is getting there and watching how this horse changes the lives and fortunes of those around him.

While Secretariat is a quality movie, I found it interesting that the most compelling character in the movie was the horse himself. The few times I've been around horses in my life, I've always wondered what's going on in their heads. This film gets as close as any film I've ever seen at accomplishing this. The final race at Belmont as Secretariat stares down his opponent, Sham, is thrilling and more suspenseful than any race in which we know the outcome ought to be. In those moments, I felt like I knew the horse and that was more exciting than the result.

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