Cheering Secretariat

Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes

After experiencing Disney’s Secretariat and its heavy-weight cast of Diane Lane, James Cromwell, John Malkovich, and Scott Glenn I’ve got to agree with Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“So why, when I saw the race in the film, did I have tears in my eyes?” he writes. “It was because ‘Secretariat‘ is a movie that allows us to understand what it really meant. This isn’t some cornball formula film. It doesn’t have a contrived romance…. It is a great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him.”

I’m surprised, to be honest, at what is mostly high-praise for a move that might have come off as a little too “feel good” and perhaps formulaic—usually anathema to Hollywood critics. I detected neither, but rather a movie that not only reminds us of our great stories at a time when good stories are hard to find, but also what is required when pursuing something significant.

My family and I couldn’t help but compare Secretariat to Seabiscuit on the way home from the theatre. For most part we agreed that Seabiscuit was still the better movie, but where the simple art of storytelling is concerned—Secretariat is hard to beat. Regarding performances, Diane Lane is great as Penny Chenery even if she does borrow from Streep’s Karen and Bullock’s Leigh Ann Tuohy. But it is Malkovich as trainer Lucien Laurin and the horse itself, as it should be, that emerge as the true vehicles of this great story.

My favorite part? There’s a scene during the Belmont Stakes—the last leg of the Triple Crown—in which the director chooses to allow the action to go silent as Secretariat opens that now-famous margin between himself and Sham. It’s during this moment that both those on screen as well as those in the theater are given the opportunity to drink in this epic, yet fleeting, moment of greatness.

In the end, as Ebert says, Secretariat is a great film about greatness—on multiple levels. It’s also cool how the Book of Job makes its way into the narrative. And I don’t remember another movie experience in which those on-hand actually cheered during the show.

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