Rebecca Boyd

Exploring the universe, one frame at a time.


Posted Saturday, October 16th, 2010
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This afternoon I saw Secretariat: The Impossible True Story. I went into the theater skeptical and left pleasantly surprised.  I’ll probably buy it when it hits DVD, or at least Netflix it.

Before I jump into creative commentary, I do feel obliged to mention that, as a lifelong horse person, I am frequently appalled by horse-work in movies.  Someone’s always yanking the horse’s mouth, jabbing the horse in the ribs, or flopping around on its back like a 200 pound sack of potatoes.  Happily, I didn’t catch any of that in Secretariat.  (That’s not to say that I might not see something on a second viewing, of course, but nothing jumped out at me on this first run through.)  So that was nice.  Nothing ruins a movie for me like bad horsemanship.  (The trailers alone kept me from ever seeing The Mask of Zorro.)

In addition to the lack of offensive horse-work, though, there is a surprising amount to recommend this film.  I quite loved the Diane Lane character, Penny Chenery, having been mentored by several tough, classy, straight-shooting Virginia horse ladies like her in my own life.  I wasn’t expecting to love her, though.  Before seeing the film, I had written off the character based on the preview trailers, which presented her as a caricature Woman In A Man’s World (copyright Disney 1995).  Happily, that turned out to be a side effect of trailer editing, and I left the theater feeling like Ms. Chenery was someone I had known all my life.

And if you’re thinking “But, Becca, I’ve never been mentored by a classy, straight-shooting Virginia horsewoman” , well, I think you’ll probably still be able to relate to her.  In addition to being a horse person, she’s also a working mom, a grieving daughter, and – well, fine – a woman in a man’s world.  Also, honestly, it’s hard not to like Diane Lane’s characters.  I have been prepared to hate several of them over the years, but every time she wins me over completely.

Also wonderful in this film was John Malkovich in the role of French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin.  He was weird enough to be delightful, normal enough to be believable.  And his costumes were a thing of beauty.  I find oddly dressed men incredibly endearing.  Actually, now that I think on it, all the costumes were strong in this film.    I left the theater with a distinct desire to wear long white gloves and a sparkly brooch to my next formal occasion.  (You may have to remind me, though:  my formal occasions are few and far between.)

And then there was the cinematography.  There were a few odd zooms here and there, and the hand-held, documentary-style pans at the end of the Belmont sequence were a bit jarring, but overall the film was a visual treat that made me quite homesick for Virginia horse country.  And the racing scenes were the best I have ever seen on film.  Never before have I known a movie to make so close an approximation to what it really feels like to ride a galloping horse.  It, I must admit, was a tremendous improvement over the racing scenes in my very favorite horse movie: Seabiscuit.  So, kudos to DP Dean Semler!

Really, my only problems with this movie are related to its narrative structure.  I need to see it again – and take notes as I watch – in order to make a detailed critique, but certainly a lot of the structural wonkiness stems from the fact that the real story of the real horse and his real humans isn’t really structured like a movie.  Too many climaxes and too many years to cover in the span of 2 hours.  My hunch is that it could be tightened up a bit with some tweaks to the writing and editing, but – again – I need to watch it a second time to be able to substantiate (or, hat in hand, retract) that claim.  Also, as long as I’m nit picking:  I really wish that they had left in (or, well, put in) the crowd noise underneath the music at the end.  Having the soundtrack go music-only there felt sterile to me.

But what do I know?  Go watch the movie.  See if you agree.