Having a great story to tell doesn't necessarily mean that one is going to end up with a great movie. Is story an important component in putting together a film? Unquestionably, but it isn't the only thing and while it can help minimize other issues, it doesn't always completely make up for them. Watching 2010's Secretariat it is abundantly clear that the tale of the 1973 Triple Crown winner may be a good one, but that the movie fails to convey it in a satisfying way.
Directed by Randall Wallace and starring Diane Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the horse's owner, Secretariat features some truly outstanding camera and editing work during the race sequences but never captures the audience's imagination at any other point. Although the film's name might indicate that it is about the horse, the vast majority of it is actually about Penny herself. However, her character is never developed in an interesting fashion. In fact, no character in the film is ever truly developed at all.
The story begins simply enough, with Penny deciding to split time between her family out west and her father's horse stables in Virginia. It's a decision that her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) doesn't approve of, nor does her brother, Hollis Chenery (Dylan Baker). Penny, out of loyalty to her ailing father (Scott Glenn), ignores their wishes and does it anyway. While at one point in time the stables may have been successful, Penny finds that those days are long past and works at fixing the situation. Through no fault of her own, Penny ends up with a horse that she thinks has the right lineage to be a great race horse and sets about proving her intuition correct.
As some of the bonus materials included on the Blu-ray release acknowledge, the story of Secretariat isn't the story of an underdog who comes from behind to beat the odds. The horse wasn't an underdog and the film does not state that he was, but it does fail to provide any other real dramatic hook to the piece. Yes, Penny is an unlikely owner. Yes, she does hire an oddball trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). And yes, she does occasionally struggle with her husband and brother about the right way to proceed. However, none of those things ever really threaten to derail her, she just keeps moving forward despite the small obstacles in her path.
There is a moment when she needs to raise funds to be able to pay off the inheritance tax due upon her father's death, and while that may be the most dramatic of the occurrences, it is quickly dealt with. That probably is actually a smart move on the filmmakers' part rather than an oversight as Penny's pseudo-underdog status is seriously challenged by the notion that she might owe millions in an inheritance tax (because the estate she got had to be worth millions to owe that money).
The script by Mike Rich (based on a book by William Nack) does, occasionally, try to play up the issues Penny has living so far away from her family, but not terribly successfully. Again here, a main problem is a lack of character development — the film only bothers to try to establish one of her four kids as a real individual and even that attempt is half-hearted. Then, as Penny's family issues are only given the briefest nod, one has a hard time discerning why they're included to begin with.
In the end, without characters to really root for, without massive obstacles for them to overcome, and without true dramatic reversals, what the audience is left with is a straightforward tale about the best horse of its time (some might say the best horse ever) managing to win a whole bunch of races. On the upside, those races are actually filmed in fine fashion, with the cameras truly getting the viewers into the middle of the action. While 2003's Seabiscuit may have made for a better movie overall, the filming of Toby Maguire (as the jockey) during the race sequences left a whole lot to be desired, and that's a mistake that Wallace and company don't make here. Every shot during a race looks beautiful, breathtaking, and utterly real. Of course, good camerawork during those sequences doesn't make up for a film which is, in almost every other way, distinctly lacking.
Those good racing scenes look that much better with this Blu-ray release. Disney, yet again, does quite a good job with the high definition transfer. The colors are rich and the detail level high. When the dirt flies up off the track in a race it look spectacular, and when Lucien is wearing one of his horrible outfits it looks just as atrocious as the characters say it does. There does appear to be an issue with the blacks during some sequences where it becomes difficult to tell where one black ends and another begins, but it isn't a hugely distracting problem. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack excels during the races, with thundering crowds, thundering hooves, and a completely immersive audio experience. The sound also works in quieter moments and is well mixed so you won't have to play with the volume repeatedly as the film switches between those quiet and loud sequences.
In terms of bonus features, the film comes with the exact sort of items you would expect. There is a director's commentary track, a talk with Wallace and the real Penny Chenery, deleted scenes, and a music video. There is also a piece on the horse Secretariat, and another where commentators discuss Secretariat's Preakness victory. This featurette has the viewer watch a computer simulation of the race from multiple angles as a jockey, reporter, spectator, and others discuss the race from their point of view. Lastly, also included is a featurette on how the spectacular race sequences were filmed. It doesn't go into quite as much depth as one might like, but it does provide a good idea of how the production team got their results. A DVD of the film is also included.
Watching Secretariat, one can't help but get the impression that there is a good film underneath it all just begging to be released but which never makes its way out. Characters are never made three dimensional, obstacles never seem all that difficult, and the film just plods along from one moment to the next, never really living up to its potential. Unlike the career of the horse the film is focused on, Secretariat ends up feeling like one big missed opportunity.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Secretariat on Blogcritics.