Do you give the horse his strength, and endow his neck with splendor?These are the opening words of the movie, Secretariat. It is part of God's speech to Job when asking him where he was when God made the world. Unusual as it is to hear a long passage from the Bible quoted when showing us a racehorse glorying in running, it is nonetheless a perfect definition for the true story of Secretariat and his owner, Penny Chenery.
Do you make the steed to quiver while his thunderous snorting spreads terror?
He jubilantly paws the plain and rushes in his might against the weapons.
He laughs at fear and cannot be deterred; he turns not back from the sword.
Around him rattles the quiver, flashes the spear and the javelin.
Frenzied and trembling he devours the ground; he holds not back at the sound of the trumpet,
but at each blast he cries, "Aha!" Even from afar he scents the battle, the roar of the chiefs and the shouting.Job 39:19-25
In 1969, Penny Chenery is a Colorado housewife and mother when she must take on the management of her ailing father's Virginia horse stables. Struggling to make ends meet, she hires veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) who is haunted by past big losses. When a crucial decision must be made about which colt may become a winning racehorse she goes against conventional wisdom in what will become a pattern for the future. Using her hard won knowledge, innate sense of what is right, and stubborn determination to never give up, Penny Chenery makes great inroads into the male-dominated business.
There are inevitable strains on family and marriage as Chenery continually commutes and runs the business as well as being a wife and mother. These are not a large part of the movie but are nonetheless important subtext for what Chenery accomplishes, as is the parallel journey with a daughter who is discovering her true self. Although most of the attention is on Chenery's struggles, we also become well acquainted with that incredible horse, Secretariat, including his prodigious appetite, trademark late start from the gate, sheer joy in running, and endearing love of the limelight.
It is no secret that Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, but just as in watching the movie Apollo 13, knowing the outcome in no way detracts from the tension when viewing this film. This is a true story that reads like a work of fiction with myriad unbelievable twists and turns. I remember watching the three races in which Secretariat ran and the truly amazing performance he gave at The Belmont, in the crowning victory. However, I had no idea of what was at stake or the road traveled to get there and this behind-the-scenes story was fascinating.
The overall message is that we must live life to the fullest, joyfully, and to strive with all that is in us to do our utmost. Emphasizing that message was the unashamed reference to religion in the movie. From the beginning when the book of Job is quoted at length, to joyous gospel songs at two crucial scenes, to the stable hand Eddie's comments about lifting each other up, there is a definite subtext of faith which is as rare these days as it is welcome. This is skillfully done without ever clubbing the viewer over the head, which is also welcome.
This is not a perfect movie. The missteps seemed to always be in a desire to "help" the audience understand the movie better. I am not sure whether it was the director or studio who felt that the audience wouldn't understand the speed and power of the horses in some of the close racing scenes without using modern editing techniques (removing frames perhaps?) to make the motion seem faster. The overall effect, however, was to give us less to see of the very thing that they wanted to celebrate, namely the power and speed of these graceful animals and their riders as they compete. Reality, in this case, did not need enhancement. Likewise, when one of the daughters said her mother was "Awesome," I winced. Not in 1973. She'd have said her mother was cool or groovy. We get it. Stay in character. Conversely, the place where we could have used the help was in including a long shot of the end of the Belmont race, where one really needs a visual demonstration to understand the enormity of just how that race turned out. However, these are relatively minor flaws and easily overlooked.
I was stunned when director Randall Wallace appeared at our preview screening. He spoke feelingly about his pride in making a family movie celebrating time honored virtues which anyone in America could watch. He can be rightly proud of this accomplishment in telling an incredible story in a captivating, inspirational way. As the movie began I was reminded of the movies that Disney used to make long ago. Toward the end, it had surpassed them in the richness of the storytelling.
The question on everyone's mind going into this movie is most probably, "How does it compare with Seabiscuit?" I can tell you that it would be like comparing apples and oranges. Both are enjoyable in their own ways. Seabiscuit was more of a period piece and multiple character study. This is a straight forward, inspirational movie of the same sort as The Blind Side. The actors are not called upon to stretch their talents in part because they are telling a straight forward story. The possible exception to this might be John Malkovich who, for a change, was not playing John Malkovich as is the trend lately. He turned in a charming and likable performance as the quirky, flamboyantly dressed, but overall normal trainer.