More than just a true story with an underdog theme, Secretariat is a feel good film and highly inspirational from the get-go.

This is the true story of one of the greatest racehorses that ever lived, and one woman’s determination to make that horse a legend. A full-time housewife and mother of four, Penny Chenery’s suburban life turns around soon after the death of her mother. Shortly after, her father (Scott Glen) suffers a stroke and passes away, positioning Penny (Diane Lane) in the middle of a dilemma where she must either sell her father’s stables or nurture the perfect thoroughbred and bring the stables back into profitability. Penny soon finds herself an outcast in a male dominated industry. In no time, Penny is faced with opposition from her father’s horse trainer, her own brother and even her husband — all who believe this is no place for a woman, especially one who has absolutely no knowledge in horse racing or breeding. Now left with the foal of a thoroughbred mare, “Secretariat” becomes Penny’s only hope in saving her family heritage. In putting together a team, Penny recruits a new trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a new jockey, Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), her father’s former secretary, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale) and horse groomer Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis). Her objective? Win the Triple Crown — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in over 25 years.

Although there are no perceivable flaws in this film, it will always be compared to Seabiscuit, a similarly engaging film about thoroughbred racing. While Seabiscuit went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations, Secretariat is void of any major nominations. So what sets this film apart from the other? Quite a few reasons actually. As a biopic, Secretariat is cinematically epic in its story, narration and production value. Using deft camera work and hard to reach shooting angles, the result is visually stunning cinematography and nail biting horse racing sequences. Additionally, and thanks to some impressive sound editing, the original score makes for some acoustically engaging soundtrack, further adding to the excitement of the races. Casting is another tick mark as everyone fits the bill with gusto. Known for his gaudy sarcasm, Malkovich is at his expected best but comes across with some intentional comic moments and a peculiar taste in clothing. Sweeping through the huge array of top actors, Lane is easily the show stealer in one of her finest moments in a leading role. Make no mistake; the crowd pulling mechanism of this film is an underdog’s triumph despite several odds. Lane embodies this perfectly by rendering Penny Chenery larger than life as a woman of substance and an individual with the will to win. Lane also goes as far as personifying Penny’s amazing way of managing her team, making informed yet proactive decisions and finding opportunities when there are no apparent solutions.

Having written the screenplay for blockbusters like Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, this is Oscar nominated screenwriter Randall Wallace in only his third film as director, but an important film that tops the ‘must-see’ factor over and over. Aside from some top performances and an authentic feel to the story, the narration is also tightly knit with strong messages of self-worth against peer pressure, beating down a path when there is nowhere to go and the bold yet subtle voices of destiny flirting with faith.

Both Seabiscuit and Secretariat are period sagas of true stories. Both are good films with a stellar cast dishing out memorable performances. Both are visually entertaining without the need of special effects. The comparison ends with the high inspirational quotation that Penny Chenery achieved what no other woman has or ever will.

Rating: ★★★★☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.