Secretariat is a rousing, crowd-pleasing thoroughbred; but, deep down, it's nothing but a load of good, old-fashioned Disney horse hockey. Set in an early '70s milieu so handsome and bucolic that it may as well be poodle-skirt '50s suburbia, it's as blandly wholesome as oats and apples.
The script wisely puts a human face on this inspiring tale of the greatest racehorse that ever lived. That pretty face belongs to the lovely Diane Lane, looking like a throwback movie star, with an upswept hair helmet so perfectly coiffed it looks like a team of beauticians lacquered it into place.
The immaculate look is appropriate, because as we meet Lane's Penny Chenery Tweedy she's in full-on Donna Reed super-housewife mode, raising brood in a cozy Denver suburb. She's happy baking brownies until tragedy calls her back to her family's hallowed Virginia horse-breeding operation, Meadow Stables. Penny's mom has recently passed, her father (Scott Glenn) is fading, and her persnickety brother (Dylan Baker) would rather liquidate the whole farm and move on.
What's a gal to do but dig deep, risk breaking a nail and get her hands dirty?
Turns out she's got a knack for horse-breeding, and she craftily wins a gentleman's coin toss with her dad's old rival, picking the foal she suspects will have a rare combination of speed and stamina. She's correct, of course, but this little lady's every move is sniffed at by a coterie of stuffy, Southern country club good-old-boy elitists, led by their living personification, the saggy Fred Thompson.
Much-needed energy lifts from the reliably kooky John Malkovich, who plays flamboyant trainer Lucien Lauren, a mercurial dandy in a candy-colored wardrobe. Playing an eager reporter, Entourage's Kevin Conroy is a chipmunk-cheeked ball of enthusiasm straight from an Andy Hardy movie.
Secretariat is as sturdy and dependable as the stud it's named after, but its well-trotted path was beaten down by the likes of Seabiscuit, and a million other sentimental, rah-rah sports flicks.
Yes, we all know where this is going, but are meant to be comforted by the joy of the ride. The final race is treated rapturously, as Edwin Hawkins' funky gospel hit "Oh Happy Day" booms on the soundtrack, and the soaring choir lifts the proceedings skyward. Secretariat plays to the choir, but asks us to rejoice in a moment of triumph, despite the sinking suspicion we all feel that we're running a race we can't win.