SECRETARIAT - Blu-ray review

Easily as good of a film as Seabiscuit, and family-friendly.

James Plath's picture

Secretariat was the first animal to be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in a state where horse racing is as big as basketball. And in 1999, Secretariat was honored with his image on a U.S. postage stamp, 10 years before another movie racehorse--Seabiscuit--got his stamp. But Seabiscuit got his own movie in 2003, and now Secretariat appropriately gets his.

In the entire history of American Thoroughbred racing, only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown--the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. This is the story of one of them. Sort of. But it's really the story of Penny Chenery Tweedy, who battled sexism as a female owner and took a virtual leave of absence from her family in Colorado to take over Meadow Stables after her mother passed away and her father was too debilitated to run the place. It's the story of a woman who grew up at Meadow Stables and had the same kind of horse-sense as her father--something that enabled her to see greatness in a horse named Secretariat.

Seabiscuit was an undersized underdog who gave America hope during the Depression. Secretariat was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years whose large heart enabled him to win the third leg of the crown--the Belmont Stakes--by 31 lengths, a margin and a record-setting time that no horse since has been able to manage. It was such a display of athleticism and cultural impact that the American public voted Secretariat's Belmont Stakes win as one of the most defining and memorable events of the '70s.

Roger Ebert gave "Secretariat" four stars in his review, declaring that it isn't "some cornball formula film" and it's "certainly not about an underdog."

I beg to differ. There are some corny moments, especially in the early going, and while Secretariat may not have been an underdog, in this Disney film the people who surround him certainly are. Aside from Penny (Diane Lane), who's battling a more "practical-minded" brother, an unsupportive husband, and a good old boy racing establishment, there's trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), an eccentric who came out of retirement to take over at Meadow Stables, and a jockey named Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), considered the best, but someone who might drive horses just a little too hard. A shadow hung over each of their heads; with Secretariat, the light shone through.

But it's true that "Secretariat" was no underdog. Sired by racing royalty--Bold Ruler--and foaled to the Meadow Stables-owned Somethingroyal, he was an underdog only insomuch as a rich owner chose another foal over him when he had the chance, leaving Secretariat to Meadow Stables. Otherwise, great things were expected out of Secretariat from birth, and he delivered.

Disney's "Secretariat" takes some liberty with the facts, as one might expect. The shadows that dogged the humans in the story weren't all that great in real life, but when you're telling the story of the #2-ranked racehorse of all time, I guess you're allowed a few liberties in order to make the narrative more dramatic. There's no real villain, unless you consider a bombastic, sexist rival owner black-hearted. It's more a tale of hunches and beliefs, of doing what you think is right--even if there's a price to pay.

The horse takes center stage, but mostly in relation to the humans around him-including the groom that spent more time with Secretariat than any other human (Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat), a top Canadian jockey who would only ride a horse who had a shot at history, a trainer whose just a little eccentric, and the woman who gave the horse his name (Margo Martindale as Miss Ham). But mostly it's a story about a woman who returns to Virginia for the funeral of her mother, learns that the stables are being mismanaged with her father virtually out of the picture, and decides to make the stables pay off again--not necessarily financially, but rather to restore the stables to the trophy-winning glory of its past. It's a story about a woman who rediscovers all that she loved about her father (Scott Glenn) and his virtues, and all that she loved about the stables as a girl. Figures like $6 million are thrown around, but that doesn't concern Penny as much as following her hunch about one special racehorse.

Lane is superb as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the owner who spent more time "talking" to the horse than most, and wasn't above getting her hands wet and soaping down the horse with the groom. Lane and Malkovich command most of our attention--that is, the attention that's not directed at the horse or the gorgeous Kentucky location scenery.

Aside from a few cheeseball scenes--as when Penny walks through a hallway filled with trophies and we see her flashbacks running to her daddy as she's walking to see him now--the script from Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester," "The Rookie") is economical and does a fine job of creating drama where extreme dramatic situations didn't really exist. He focuses on the stakes and the transformation of the owner, and that makes "Secretariat" more than the typical sports story. There are strong themes of women's liberation and following your convictions in this 1960s and 1970s-era film-though the depiction of "flower power" hippies is just a little too clichéd. Likewise, the family gets marginalized, probably because to delve any deeper would be to explore basic questions, like how did they stay together when Penny's husband (Dylan Walsh) resented her going after her dream and wanted to sell the stables, as did her brother. We see one daughter lurking in the shadows listening to the parents disagree, but there's no follow-up, probably because it would have thrown off the focus of the film and turned it into a different story.

As for the racing scenes, director Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers," "The Man in the Iron Mask") relies on a combination of long shots and extreme camera angles with sped-up filming and CGI work to give a hoof-level view of the powerful strides and all that dirt that gets kicked up. I'd say it's easily as entertaining and accomplished as "Seabiscuit," so if that film appealed, "Secretariat" will too. It's the story of a horse pre-birth and right up until that third leg of the Triple Crown.

And for families hesitant to watch stories about dogs or horses, afraid that their kids are going to be traumatized by death or injury, [*SPOILER*] nothing terrible happens in this film other than the opening death of the mother. It's a 123-minute PG-rated film that probably could have gotten a G rating were it not for one or two swearwords and a prominent finger.

"Secretariat" comes to Blu-ray via a bright AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc, presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. Even in 1080p the film has some soft-focus backgrounds, atmospheric and slightly grainy racing close-ups, and a few shadowy scenes where the black levels seem just a little light. The colors aren't as pop-out bright as most Blu-rays and the edge delineation isn't as pronounced, which gives it a slightly softer look. But I'm convinced this is a deliberate attempt to give the film an older look, so we'll believe it's set in 1969-1973. That's because when the mood calls for a romantic-nostalgic feeling and we get a medium shot of the stables, the green grass is vibrant and the white fences further accentuate the appeal of the racing culture.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that involves the rear speakers a good deal, but be warned: when the bell rings and those gates fly open, the hooves pound as thunderously as cannon fire and we hear every spackle of mud and dirt as it moves across the sound field. During quiet moments, though, you'll find yourself turning up the volume, as the dialogue can get whisper-like. I would have preferred a soundtrack that was more of a compromise between the soft and intensely loud moments--though that's not theater, is it? Additional Audio options are an English DVS 2.0 (on the commentary track) and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The DVD offers English, French or Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, plus the same DVS and subtitles.

Director Wallace offers a start-to-finish commentary that never sags, and since this is a real story but based on a book that inspired a film, it's interesting to hear him address all three layers of "facts" at one point or another. Would-be filmmakers will appreciate that he second guesses himself a lot, rather than defending what he did or breaking his arm trying to pat himself on the back. It's a self-effacing, all-business commentary that's full of facts and basic information about pre-production and production. Of particular interest to me was his explanations for the racing sequences. There's some overlapping with a six-minute featurette on "Choreographing the Races," but that's okay because the latter brings in a horse wrangler who adds another perspective.

"Heart of a Champion" (15 min.) gives a profile of Penny Chenery Tweedy and Secretariat, with Wallace and his film crew also weighing in.

"A Director's Inspiration: A Conversation with the Real Penny Chenery" (21 min.) is a filmed chat between the director and Chenery Tweedy, and fans of the "real people" behind the film will especially enjoy the give-and-take between the two. Wallace tries mostly to draw her out, but the stories are worth waiting for.

"Secretariat Multi-Angle Simulation" is an account of the Preakness win viewed from a number of angles and perspectives, with fans, announcers, and the jockey weighing in.

Rounding out the bonus features are 10 minutes of deleted scenes (including an alternate opening) and a four-minute music video ("It's Who You Are," by AJ Michalka).

And, of course, there are the obligatory trailers, a few of which you have to watch (or skip), and others which appear on a menu that you can access.

Bottom Line:
True sports stories always have a slightly formulaic feel to them, because what interests fans most are just two story lines: an underdog struggling to win, or a winner traced back to discover what made it all possible. "Secretariat" is interesting because it includes a little of both. It's as much the story of a woman as it is the story of a horse, and there's enough drama (and dramatization) here to make us actually feel something. It's easily as good of a film as "Seabiscuit," and family-friendly.


Film Value