Secretariat review: A fine film despite flaws

Sarah Wandor

Critic’s Corner Columnist

“Secretariat” is a 2010 movie based on a true story about a legendary racehorse of the same name and his owner. It follows Penny Chenery having to manage her family’s horse farm upon the death of her mother and with her father being in poor health.

A foal is born to the farm whom they name Big Red and race under the name of Secretariat. While Chenery is juggling being a wife and mother and also running the farm, Secretariat wins any race he enters and is named horse of the year.

He races against Sham in the 1973 Triple Crown, a set of three of the hardest and longest horse races, and goes on to become the most legendary horse in horse racing history.

The opening dialogue of the film is good as it describes a racehorse like Secretariat was and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The writing throughout most of the film is very well done in that it is realistic.

In the beginning of the film, Chenery drops a bowl when she hears of her mother’s death. That feels like a more natural reaction to the shock of the death of someone you loved than other action movies sometimes choose.

The dialogue also doesn’t feel forced and it sounds like something a person would actually say. This is shown multiple times throughout the film, in Chenery’s conversations with her brother when trying to decide what to do with the farm and when she is talking to Lucien Laurin to try and convince him to train her horses.

Many script writers make the mistake of trying too hard and forcing a person or character to say something inspirational or meaningful but it usually backfires because it is forced. “Secretariat” does not make that mistake. Instead, the conversations flow as they would in real life. It allows the audience to become absorbed into the film and relate to the characters more.

However, there are a few scenes where lines are out of place in the film. A prime example of this is when Chenery and others wash Secretariat with music playing over them. Not only does this scene feel weird, it feels like this scene was just put in the film to take up space. It is not needed, and it is out of place simply because, as humorous as it might be, it still disrupts the flow of the movie and takes away from it more than it adds.

The music choice for these scenes and other parts of the film is quite poor as well. A chief example is when Secretariat is finishing the last of the triple crown races and instead of having an orchestra or even one instrument play something that matches the scene, they choose yet another random song for the climactic moment of the entire film. The song choice is again out of place and causes the scene to not live up the buildup for it.

There are other moments as well where the movement from scene to scene is jumpy. This can happen when you have multiple scenes in a row that are short, so going from one to the next can be disruptive for a movie and doesn’t help it to flow in the way it should. Instead of going from scene to scene quickly, they should have tried to either cut them or elongate them to have more of a buildup.

Yet, the director and head of casting made a good choice in their pick of actress Diane Lane to portray Chenery. She is a strong, stubborn, and yet calm and sophisticated woman and Diane Lane portrayed her nearly perfectly.

She showed the way Chenery struggled both with her family and in trying to sort out the horse farm. Her posture and demeanor when she walked into the gentlemen-only club brought what was written on the script to life, displaying Chenery’s strength and will to do what must be done.

Lane was very good at having Chenery keep her composure even when she was angry and having a stern talk with someone else, like she did with Lucien Laurin toward the beginning of the film. She did an exceptional job at portraying Chenery and had the needed levels to her emotions.

Unfortunately, “Secretariat” is one of many films based on a true story that does not stick very close to it. The film makes it appear as though the horse farm has no good horses before Big Red saved the farm, but that is not true. The farm had another horse named Riva Ridge who was trained by the same trainer and ridden by the same rider as Secretariat. Riva is the horse who saved the farm financially and won one of the Triple crown races.

The movie also cut out another horse named Angle Light who beat both Sham and Secretariat at the Wood Memorial. Chenery’s husband may have had a change of heart at the end of the film but in reality, they divorced just six months after Secretariat raced in the Triple Crown. There are many other facts the filmmakers decided to change, causing it to not stay as true to the story as it should have.

Despite its faults, “Secretariat” is a decently well-made, spirited film that is worth watching. It doesn’t stick very closely with the actual story and leaves many important factors out, yet you connect with the people on screen and feel the energy and adrenaline of the horse races that can give you goose bumps. You grow to love Secretariat and learn more about the greatest horse that has ever lived.