The secret of this film’s success is that it isn’t just the saga of a famous, prize-winning horse; it’s also the story of his owner, a suburban housewife and mom who stepped into a man’s world and took charge of an animal she believed to be a champion. It documents a time in the late 1960s and early 70s, when social change was in the air, and women’s roles in society were changing, if slowly. Mike Rich’s screenplay captures the time quite well, as do all the visual details onscreen. Those qualities—plus an exceptionally good cast—lift this above the norm for sports movies and underdog tales.
I can’t think of a better role for Diane Lane, who’s (finally) come into her own in recent years after decades of solid work. She is effortlessly convincing as a woman whose devotion to her father, the owner of a Virginia horse farm, and single-minded determination to succeed gave her strength she’d never tapped before. She’s surrounded by equally expert actors, including—
—John Malkovich, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn, Nelsan Ellis, Dylan Baker, and the wonderful Margo Martindale.
The racing scenes are exceptional, and reveal how ingenuity and a determination to reinvent the wheel can sometimes pay off. I don’t recall seeing a horse race filmed from such a low angle before—or a point-of-view shot that makes you feel as if you’re sitting on top of the horse itself. Cinematographer Dean Semler and director Randall Wallace deserve credit for raising the bar, along with their sound team (including the multi-Oscar-nominated Kevin O’Connell), in these sequences.
Perhaps the most surprising achievement is that Secretariat creates drama and even suspense although we already know the outcome. The story droops a bit during the second act, but it still works. Because it tells a feel-good story in an easily digestible form, it may strike some people as old-fashioned. I have a feeling it will play especially well to mature moviegoers, but I would hate to see such a good piece of work be dismissed as just a movie for old codgers. It deserves a wider audience. And whatever your feelings about the value of the film, there is no disputing the fact that its raw material is one of the great sports stories of the 20th century.