‘Secretariat’ is familiar story elevated by great performance, charm.

"Secretariat" Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, James Cromwell Pitchforks: 3.5 out of 5 Rating: PG Opens: Oct. 8


If there’s one genre Disney is most notorious for (other than animated fairytales), it would be the inspirational underdog story. If you’ve seen “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “Invincible,” “The Rookie,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played” or virtually any movie of its kind, you’ll be able to foresee every twist and turn of “Secretariat.”

Like fairytales, these movies all follow a step-by-step formula. Yet, the story never grows old no matter how many times you see it. “Secretariat” is a movie you walk into knowing exactly what you’re going to get and it graciously delivers what the audience wants: to be uplifted.

One of the film’s several underdogs is Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, a devoted housewife and mother of four. When her mother passes away Penny decides to take charge of her ill father’s Meadow Stables.

Without much experience in horseracing, she hires a down-on-his-luck trainer with a tacky fashion sense named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). Penny and Lucien believe they have found a contender in a horse called Big Red.

They give Big Red the nickname of “Secretariat” and recruit Ron Turcotte, a hard-edged jockey played by newcomer Otto Thorwarth. The future of the farm all relies on Secretariat winning the Triple Crown, a feat that at the time had not been accomplished in twenty-five years.

With a blonde hairdo and strong-willed attitude, it’s hard not to compare Penny Chenery to Leigh Anne Tuohy, the heroine of “The Blind Side” played by Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for the role.

While both real life women have much in common, Diane Lane makes Penny her own. Lane is plucky and encouraging as a lady who refuses to give up on her horse no matter how high the odds are. Her Academy Award-quality performance is the guiding light of “Secretariat” and raises it above being just another feel-good movie.

What holds “Secretariat” back from becoming a great horseracing movie, like “Seabiscuit,” is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Don’t get me wrong, every actor in the movie is wonderful, which in addition to Malkovich includes Nelsan Ellis from “True Blood” as a horse groomer and James Cromwell as a wealthy horse owner and breeder. But where “Seabiscuit” had three intriguing, complex characters in Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Tobey Maguire, few of the supporting players stand out in “Secretariat.” The movie’s shining human star is Diane Lane and Diane Lane alone.

“Secretariat” does share one fundamental element with “Seabiscuit” though, and that is a terrific movie horse. Big Red immediately captures the audience’s heart from the instant he’s born, as corny as that may sound.

The film’s strongest moments are its breathtaking racing scenes, elevated by stunning cinematography from Dean Semler and a magical score by Nick Glennie-Smith.

Even when you know the outcome of the big race, you can feel the intensity. Once the race reaches it’s conclusion, you might very well cheer out loud in the theater. That’s the key to making a familiar story such as this seem fresh.

Reach the reporter at nspake@asu.edu

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