EARLY SCREENING OF SECRETARIAT – THE MOVIE

Sometimes, you just get lucky.

Like when Penny Chenery won Secretariat in a coin toss (that she actually lost) or on Wednesday when I got an email from Rita McKlenny, head of the Film Office of Virginia Tourism, with an invitation to attend the Wash/Balt critics screening of the new movie Secretariat that night in Washington, DC. In a second email, she informed me Bill Nack would be there as well. (Nack wrote the book on which the film is based.)

In short, this seemed too good to pass up.

We arrived a few minutes early and were promptly escorted to our seats. We met and chatted briefly with Nack who was conveniently seated immediately adjacent to us. (Nack later noted that he was “anxious” about the final product. He was very diplomatic. I was downright worried. We will have more on Nack later today and hopefully an interview week after next.)

The apprehension seemed appropriate. After all, this was Secretariat we are talking about – Big Red, Triple Crown winner, the greatest racehorse of all time, Virginia’s finest – you get the point.

While we all know Disney runs a first class shedrow, it’s always a bit nerve wracking when Hollywood wanders into a place where they have limited expertise. Luckily, they had Nack and Leonard Lusky (of Secretariat.com) among others to help guide the way.

Now before I put on movie critic’s hat, I think it’s only fair to share my perspective. First, I can’t watch the movie as a layman. I know that. I’m too invested in the industry, our state, the animals, so I know going in that being close to the subject matter will make it difficult, if not impossible, to empathize with the general movie-going public. I’m not sure if that is a blessing or a curse, but I know it eliminates me from making a credible guess if the film will be a financial success.

Secondly, Secretariat was the fourth movie I had seen in as many days. OK, I don’t normally see many movies and the last one I saw prior to this unusual Grand Slam was the kid movie Despicable Me (which is wonderful.) But since our children were at their grandparents for a week and the heat discouraged outside activities, we decided to take ourselves to the movies – the grown up movies.

Monday night was a double feature — The Other Guys with comedy superstar Will Farrell, and The Kids Are All Right, a movie about marriage, family, infidelity and every other complicated factor in long-term relationships. Farrell was good, but the movie seemed to just miss.

The twist in “Kids” is that central figures in the plot are long-term lesbian lovers Annette Benning and Julianne Moore with two children both sired by the same sperm donor. Yep, a little AI in the mix. Things get wacky when the kids meet their biological father.

On Tuesday, we saw Inception, and it’s every bit as good as folks say. Think of Memento going forward mixed with The Matrix sans the Kung Fu. It’s a big movie with thought provoking concepts and a complicated plot. It’s good looking and well-acted. It’s won awards at various film festivals and may well be in the Oscar mix.

So, in a way, Secretariat was the dessert for this cinematic, multi-night dinner party. (Inception was a big, fat steak!) That said, all in all, the final course was satisfying.

When you see Secretariat, it’s important to remember it’s a Disney film. It will no doubt be G-rated and it is absolutely perfect for kids and families. It is ultimately very pro-horse, pro-racing and pro-horse people. There isn’t a single dark moment in the film except when it is revealed that Ron Turcotte once rode a horse so hard its “heart exploded.” Thankfully, there was no video to accompany this conversation.

I won’t be the spoiler and ruin your movie experience, but I will tell you a few things. The movie starts with the death of Penny Chenery Tweedy’s mother – hey, that’s not a spoiler – all Disney movies begin with the death of a parent.

Of note to those of us in the Commonwealth, when Tweedy (Diane Lane) returns to The Meadow the audience is quickly introduced to Miss Elizabeth Ham, Christopher Chenery’s longtime secretary and lifetime member of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association. Her movie character played by Margo Martindale is interesting and entertaining, but she bears little resemblance in look or character to the Miss Ham I knew. She plays a big role in the movie which should delight Ham’s family.

Unfortunately, another important player – longtime farm manager, VTA member, director and wonderful gentleman – Howard Gentry has no role. This is disappointing as Nack’s book begins with Gentry’s concern over the birth of this blue-blooded colt and the words that the movie might well make famous – “There is a whopper.”

The movie takes you from Mrs. Chenery’s death through the Triple Crown. It portrays the events that occurred perhaps as accurately as Hollywood ever could (or would want to) in the span of two hours.

Much is made of Tweedy operating in a man’s world and of her fight to utilize Secretariat to save the family farm. No mention is made of stablemate Riva Ridge who won the Kentucky Derby the year before Big Red. By Virginia-sire First Landing, Riva Ridge would go on to win $1.1 million so surely he helped finance the Secretariat “experiment,” but that bit of reality would dilute the tension of the plot so the admission is understandable and forgiven.

Veteran actor James Cromwell plays Ogden Phipps and the coin flip scene is a keeper. I had issues with John Malkovich being cast as Lucien Lauren when it seemed that Danny DeVito with hair and a French Canadian accent might have been perfect, but Malkovich is so good at his craft that he pulls it off nicely. You get the point that Lauren was a character, and not your regular garden variety racehorse trainer.

Fred Thompson plays Bull Hancock, Kevin Connolly of HBO’s Entourage plays Nack and Nelsan Ellis, who plays the flamboyant Lafayette on HBO’s smash series True Blood, carries off Eddie Sweat. Steeplechase rider Tom Foley (who will also judge this year’s Virginia Breeders Fund’s Yearling Futurity) plays Secretariat’s exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney.

It is interesting what the studio found important to show and what they glossed over. There is a scene where Secretariat loses his first start but there is no other two-year-old races presented – either recreated or with historical footage. The fact that he was Horse of the Year at two seems downplayed. Perhaps, back in the 1970’s, without the 24 hour news cycle, it wasn’t such a big deal as it would be today.

Horse folks are going to have to look past some of the moving making techniques and simply enjoy the ride that is Secretariat. Disney is clearly forced to compress both space and time in order to keep the plot racing along to that now very famous June Saturday at Belmont Park.

A perfect example of this is the syndication of Secretariat. One scene shows Tweedy, Ham and Seth Hancock all in the same office (presumably at the farm in Virginia) while Eddie Sweat stands outside in the yard holding Secretariat’s shank in one hand and bathing him with his free hand. That probably didn’t happen as Tweedy was most likely in Colorado or New York, Hancock in Kentucky, Ham in Virginia and Big Red and Sweat in New York. Never mind the whole “holding the Horse of the Year with one hand” thing…However, the scene doesn’t work if depicted accurately cutting from phone call to phone call to phone call while our hero snoozes in his Barn 5 stall at Belmont Park.

My advice is don’t go into Secretariat looking to criticize its slip ups. Go in looking to enjoy a ride up to and through the Triple Crown during what we know know was an amazing period of horse racing history.

Lane is quite good as Tweedy and the wardrobes and sets that seem a bit outlandish at first ultimately seem accurate. I’m looking at a picture of Secretariat in the winners’circle post Ky Derby and Penny is wearing a very similar dress and Sweat those crazy plaid pants seen in the movie. That said, Lucien Lauren is not wearing a hat that would make the late great Rodney Dangerfield’s Caddyshack character grimace.

The imitation racetracks will be a bit of a distraction to the well-travelled race fan or horseman. Saratoga is faked and Keeneland stands in for Belmont. On the positive side, the wranglers did a great job. In the close up shots, the “equine actors” playing Secretariat bear an uncanny resemblance. The action shots were a little bit tougher to duplicate, but only horse folks will likely see signs of how orchestrated the racing scenes had to be.

For my money, there is only one “shot” missing and it remains my favorite Secretariat moment captured on film. While the movie includes Turcotte looking at the tote board’s tele-timer as he crosses the finish line in the Belmont (it isn’t explained, but those in the know will note it), it doesn’t include Turcotte looking over his shoulder as he rounds the turn for home with that ever-expanidng lead and surely thinking “Where the hell did everybody go?”

Oh well, that’s Hollywood for you.

When Secretariat, the movie, races past that glorious Triple Crown finish line you can’t help but be exhilarated and delighted in spite of the fact that you know exactly how the story ends. That in itself is an accomplishment of note making Secretariat well worth a trip to your local Cineplex this October.
I’m looking forward to taking my kids. Then my son will know exactly who that big chestnut horse in the framed poster over his bed is and why his daddy put him there… — Glenn Petty