‘Secretariat’ makes for a bumpy ride

Posted by · 9:17 am · October 4th, 2010

Last month, it was somewhat fascinating to watch Randall Wallace’s “Secretariat” a day after Anton Corbijn’s “The American.” There is no comparison to draw between the two, of course, but if the latter is the ultimate “show, don’t tell” film, then the former is most certainly the ultimate “tell, don’t show” film.

Mike Rich’s screenplay (which was “suggested” by William Nack’s book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” the closing titles tell us — I don’t know if that makes it original or adapted) is soaked in the most viscous sentiment you could imagine, and perhaps as much as you’d expect from the sampling of materials put out thus far.  But while that might be forgivable given the feel-good nature of the narrative, the repetition of that sentiment is what kills it.  My guess is director Wallace couldn’t settle on which blatant example of force-fed symbolism or thematic showmanship to trim from the potent mixture, so he just kept it all.

The result is a groaner of a film…that still manages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.  That paradox is owed completely to the true story of what is still considered the greatest race horse to ever run, of course.  Wallace doesn’t commit the sin of stripping that intrigue down to a boring essence.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as every moment is squeezed for all, and in most cases more than, it’s worth.

This REALLY gets in the way in the final scene, however.  The most (some would say) supernatural event to ever happen on a race track — Secretariat pulling ahead of endurance beast Sham by some 31 lengths to demolish any doubt that he wasn’t built for both speed and distance — is sapped of its visceral power by the way Wallace chooses to film it.

One long, mesmerizing shot of this animal doing the impossible (no horse has ever come close to the time clocked or the margin of victory), steadily pulling farther, and farther, and farther…and farther away from Sham, that would have told the story.  Tight, unfocused, unmotivated and invasive close-ups of all the people we can certainly guess are cheering their pants off (since we saw them do it at every other race dramatized in the film) does not tell that story as eloquently.  If you want the real majesty of that moment, I would look here, not to “Secretariat.”

Diane Lane carries the film capably but the performance reaches pretty far, dipping into histrionics at times.  Meanwhile, John Malkovich shows promise early on, but his charisma is somehow diminished as the film marches on.  And those are likely the only performances worth mentioning (though it’s always nice to see Dylan Walsh).

All of that said, the film played like gangbusters to an industry crowd, and I really see no reason to bet against it in this year’s awards derby (no pun intended) yet.  Comparisons have been made to “The Blind Side,” largely for the depiction of an independent and determined woman in a film that could play to the heartland.  For those reasons, it’s a warranted parallel, but John Lee Hancock’s film was a $250 million-plus grosser with the “it” girl of the year giving a bit of a flamboyant performance.  “Secretariat” won’t likely have that kind of bank to flaunt and certainly has a less confidant performance front and center.

Nevertheless, Lane, the film, production designer Tom Sanders, costume designer Michael T. Boyd (along with Julie Weiss, who is credited for Lane’s wardrobe), sound mixers Kevin O’Connell and Beau Borders, I could see them all finding room.  I wouldn’t count on much love for lenser Dean Semler, who gets some decent shots here and there, but buries portions of the races in a digital mess that looks like home video.  But who knows?  And if Matt Damon can slide in for a phone-in like “Invictus,” I see no reason to think Malkovich couldn’t make the cut (though the supporting actor category is going to be competitive, as always).

My instinct is none of the above, but something tells me this could tap a vein with voters and ride on goodwill throughout the season.  It’ll depend on how well it does with audiences and how much of a pass critics are willing to give it (not to mention how serious Disney gets with the campaign), but for this viewer, it was a taxing exercise saved only by the pure emotion and excitement inherent in the story it tells.

[Photo: Walt Disney Pictures]

→ 6 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

6 responses so far

  • 1 10-04-2010 at 10:28 am

    Ben M. said...

    Saw it at the sneak preview Saturday and didn’t care for it. There certainly were some in the audience taken by the film by I suspect it won’t be nearly as big a hit as The Blind Side, and maybe its just me but the v.o. quoting the Book of Job and the use of gospel music seemed like a marketing decision made in post to try and get some of the Christian audiences who loved The Blind Side. Lane, the costumes, and the sound mixing were the stand-outs, but my gut feeling is also that the film will get nothing.

    However, I was a bit surprised to see it got at least mostly positive reviews from Variety and Hollywood Reporter; and if the other critics have similar feelings I wouldn’t count the movie out.

  • 2 10-04-2010 at 11:32 am

    Michael said...

    I wish movies like this did not intrude on the Academy Awards in any form. I feel like they don’t really need to be recognized in this fashion. Movies like this mostly make a lot of money and are seen by a lot of people, and will probably be able to sell millions of copies of DVD’s in the bargain bins at Wal-Mart and Target for years to come, so why do they need to have some type of validation by the Academy? When movies like this DO get nominated (which happens every year), it just brings home how much the awards are given to studios through politics and expensive campaigning and not the merit of the film itself. This movie looks like dreck, and I DO NOT need to see it for myself to confirm that I would absolutely hate everything about it.

    okay, phew, end of rant. What were we talking about again?

  • 3 10-04-2010 at 2:15 pm

    Mike said...

    You mean like Titanic ? (gagging sound). Please.
    Do all critics have their hearts surgically removed at the door ? Its a movie based on a true story. Just that the story is being told is the important thing here. And a new generation will
    be able to appreciate the greatest racehorse who ever lived. Isnt that the important thing ?

  • 4 10-04-2010 at 2:23 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’m not sure who you’re addressing, Mike, but I’ll say this. I was careful to mention a few times here that the emotion of the story is a vital aspect of the film. It is, indeed, important. But as I said in Friday’s podcast, it is the story itself that stands out, not the manner in which it is told. It’s just as important to be clear about that. No, a film isn’t just about art and aesthetic, but obviously those are elements up for critique and to ignore them because of a feel good narrative is to refuse to engage the brain.

  • 5 10-04-2010 at 5:25 pm

    Josh said...

    Well-written review, Kris. I wasn’t that intrigued in the film to begin with–it sounded like something to wait and see on DVD and your review falls in with that.

    One question: nice to see Dylan Walsh and not Dylan Baker? Ouch.