FILM RATING: 4.5 stars
(Upgraded from 3.5 to 4.5 stars on September 29, 2011)
Since I first heard about this film, I’ve wanted to see it. The story of Secretariat is legendary and epic…the stuff for a potentially great movie. And Director Randall Wallace came through on this one. I finally got around to watching Secretariat (2010) for the first time last night. On first viewing, the story struck me as a bit too PG and “Disney-fied”, but as I watched it for a second time this morning, I appreciated some nuances that at first blush passed me by. So I upgraded my initial rating of 3.5 stars to 4.5. I think it will hold up well over the years. It held up well overnight!
Secretariat is the story of the famed horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973 (the year I was born ironically), winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes all in a row in a single year. It’s also the story of the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, played very well by Diane Lane. In supporting roles, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, and Nelsan Ellis help make the story of the people behind the horse interesting. Secretariat is the most famous racing horse to this day, and no horse has repeated yet as a Triple Crown winner in over 37 years. Who knows…maybe this movie will inspire a new Triple Crown winner this year!
Set in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Secretariat brings that time period and the world of horse racing to life just like Seabiscuit (2003) did a few years ago…and like The Black Stallion (1979) did when I was a kid. I personally think Secretariat is a little better than Seabiscuit, but both are really good horse racing films. I haven’t seen The Black Stallion in a lot of years, so I’m not sure how I would rate it cinematically, but I remember I loved it as a kid! Disney and director Wallace made a film here that is accessible to a broad range of audiences like the other two films I mentioned. That both helps the film and hurts it. By making a PG film, Wallace and Disney don’t quite give the film the edginess it needs to propel in to the cinematic hall of fame, but kids today now have a new story about horse racing that they can cling to and come to appreciate like I did with The Black Stallion. I’ve always loved horses in movies, and Secretariat reminds me of the simple joys of watching a horse race, like I did a few times as a teenager with my parents.
What strikes me more than anything about Secretariat is the cinematography by legendary Director of Photography Dean Semler. He is truly one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, bringing us unforgettable images in Dances With Wolves (1990), Dead Calm (1989), Apocalypto (2006), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Appaloosa (2008)…to name a few. Semler really went outside his normal camera box with Secretariat, using images from all sorts of resources, including small digital cameras in addition to 35mm film. One of the special features on the Secretariat Blu-ray discussed some of the photography during the horse races, which fascinated me as a photographer and filmmaker. Semler uses small digital cameras to capture some fascinating images of the horses and the races up close and personal, giving us an up-close and personal look at horse racing like we’ve never seen. Kudos to Semler and Wallace for daring to look outside of just the standard horse racing images we’ve seen before and bringing a fresh take to this sub-genre of movies. The photography definitely gives this film at least 1 of it’s stars because it is so striking compared to the average film.
Production Design by Thomas E. Sanders and Art Direction by Sarah Boardman and Naaman Marshall really shines in Secretariat as well. With so many well designed productions these last few years, we seem to take these talented film team members for granted, but I for one really appreciate all the hard work they put into getting all the details of the sets, locations, costumes, make-up, and props just right. The magic of film is that when its done right (like here), you are transported to another world, another time, and another place. If something distracts you from the believability of that escape, then it doesn’t work as well. But the production design of Secretariat is spot on, supporting and enhancing the story, as it should.
While the true test of Secretariat will be how it holds up over the next decade, it’s definitely a film for the whole family. Kids and adults alike can find something here to grab on to. If there was more of a male lead character that I could strongly relate to, this story might be stronger for me. But getting in to Penny’s shoes for 2 hours is enough to make me like this film more than most. While Secretariat won’t make me revise my Top 10 films of 2010, it’s probably in the 11-20 range. 2010 was just such a competitive year in movies that in another year, Secretariat would surely rise to the top like the horse itself did in 1973. Now I have a film to remind me of what was truly great about the year I was born…other than me being born of course!