‘Secretariat’ is not a film about a horse.
It is not a film about horseracing. It is not a film about a spectacular athlete who only comes along once in a lifetime. Oh, all those elements are part of this film. But this is a film about people. People who are faced with a series of difficult decisions over the course of the first three years of the great Secretariat’s life. It’s about how those people dealt with their challenges. In fact, if you didn’t know Secretariat really was the 1973 Triple Crown winner, this could easily be believed as a fictional tale. But its key facts are true…and it’s absolutely wonderful.
As with any film that is “Based on a True Story,” the film takes certain liberties. In fact, this film does not even fall into that category, as it was “Suggested by Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” a book by sportswriter William Nack, originally published in 1975.
The central and pivotal character in the film is not Secretariat, but rather his owner, Penny Tweedy (née Chenery). Her character is played by Academy Award-nominated actress Diane Lane.
Lane does an absolutely masterful job of portraying Tweedy as a smart, driven, confident woman, the deaths of whose parents thrust her into the spotlight at their farm, Meadow Stable. She doesn’t know a lot about horses or thoroughbred racing…but she reads, asks questions and learns really, really quickly. As Tweedy is learning about the game, her new knowledge is woven into the young life of Secretariat.
For anyone who’s old enough to remember Secretariat, they will recall a horse who was like no other – before or since. The film focuses part of its time on Secretariat’s character, his drive and his seemingly higher understanding of what’s transpiring around him. And Tweedy is able to connect with the horse and apparently understand how Secretariat is feeling.
There are a reasonable number of racing sequences in the film. In fact, the only true historical footage used is of the 1973 Preakness, which Tweedy’s family watches from their family room in Colorado. The film also implies that Secretariat has been run sparingly prior to the ’73 Wood Memorial. Not true. Secretariat ran eleven races prior to the Wood – winning nine of those (and DQ’d in another). In fact, the only race Secretariat legitimately lost, prior to the Wood, was the first he ever ran – the fourth race at Aqueduct on the Fourth of July in 1972. Read Secretariat’s complete racing history here – http://bit.ly/bptylu.
The camera angles used in the racing sequences were sensational. Cameras mounted on horses. Cameras tracking horses from ground level, just feet behind their pounding hooves. Low corner cameras. All broadly showing the power and grace of the athletes. Sadly, almost every race sequence used is undercranked to enhance the speed. To people who appreciate the pureness of the sport, it will seem fake. Too bad.
There is little doubt ‘Secretariat’ will be regarded as one of the great sports movies of all time. And, like others that fall into that category, it’s a lot more about people (and a horse) than it is about the games they play.