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Movie Review

Secretariat

Wire-to-wire winner: Diane Lane grabs the spotlight in the well-groomed ‘Secretariat’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 8, 2010

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In “Secretariat,’’ Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery. She wears three-quarter-length skirts and a kind of bouffant. Her colors are carnation, Tiffany, and mother of pearl. The movie is set in 1972 and 1973, but the embalming tradition of money and the recessive legacy of housewifery have made her look like a pitchwoman for cake mixes or Studebakers. The achievement of both the movie and what Lane does with the part is that it’s all bait to write her off as a sufferer, a role that Lane, due to bad movies and the bad men in them, knows too well. Not this time.

Lane dominates “Secretariat’’ with nothing more than confident poise. She often props her face on her hand, but every time we see her do it, the pose exudes something different: thought, sadness, astonishment. After her mother dies and her father (Scott Glenn) falls into a vegetative state, Chenery decides to take over her daddy’s New Rochelle farm, which includes a handful of champion horses, in particular a mare that spawns a colt later named Secretariat.

By nearly every standard, “Secretariat’’ is a small, conventional movie. If you know the tale of Chenery’s great American thoroughbred and the movie’s eponym, it’s even predictable. But the film is happy proof of what care, polish, and some modest humor can do for a tired-seeming entertainment. This is a sports drama, and that being the case, it has been presented to us — by Walt Disney Pictures, no less — as an occasion for uplift.

Falling for the factual bottom-line of these movies is easy. All those scrappy football teams did win national championships. Of course USA upset the Russian men’s hockey team at the 1980 Olympics. And is Sandra Bullock nice or what? Record books make good screenwriters. The writer for “Secretariat’’ is Mike Rich. Rich took the story from a book by William Nack, who covered the horse’s run for Newsday, and while adjusting several facts, extracts a surprising argument.

The uplift doesn’t stem from the horse per se — we don’t see a race for an hour — but from a smart idea. Chenery knows what she’s doing. She fires her father’s opportunistic trainer, keeps his groomer, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), retains his secretary, Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale), and hires a new, reluctant trainer, an irascible French-Canadian named Lucien Laurin, played by John Malkovich. When the horse loses one race, Chenery fires the jockey and brings on a better one, Ron Turcotte (the champion jockey Otto Thorwarth). She’s the CEO of a startup.

In the eyes of most of the men Chenery encounters, she actually is a cake-mix girl. When Chenery’s uptight Harvard professor brother (Dylan Baker) dismisses her as a housewife, Lane devises a nasty face for him. Her husband (Dylan Walsh) chafes at her use of her maiden name instead of his surname (it’s Tweedy). But, really, he seems secretly miffed that he’s stuck doing his wife’s chores and, worse, that two of their perfect children — the teenage girls — have become hippies whose desire to run off to Chile suggests premonitions of political coup.

Chenery is cultured and progressive and sophisticated. But the movie suggests she’s still a transitional figure between whoever her mother was (we don’t learn much) and whoever her daughters will become. When the more outspoken girl, Kate (AJ Michalka), talks politics at the dinner table, Chenery’s response is, “Would anyone like some pie?’’

The 1960s and 1970s housewife differed from her 1940s and 1950s counterparts. Feminism had chased the cultural glamour out of the role. By the end of the 1960s, there were too many examples of what else a woman could or — according to some feminists — should be. It’s the formidable Ham who gives the horse its racing name (she’s Robin to Chenery’s Batman in barrier-bending), and it’s a class and gender subversion that the movie allows to stand for itself: a stud named for a pool of proletariat typists.

Politics here are all implied. Eddie Sweat is the movie’s lone black character, and he’s portrayed as slightly touched. But when the horse wins the Kentucky Derby, a black arm reaches into the frame to congratulate him. The shot lasts two seconds, but it’s touching in its pridefulness.

“Secretariat’’ doesn’t have the panoramic ambit of, say, “Seabiscuit,’’ which used its champion horse to hang a loving frame around the 1930s. That movie was going for a thematic girth that would look foolish here, particularly in the wide world of sports. How do you use this highlight to draw conclusions about the 1970s when you also have the Fight of the Century, the Munich Olympics, and the Battle of the Sexes?

“Secretariat’’ opts, instead, for a more modest scale. It’s overly familiar, but it’s also more manageable. Lucien Laurin appears to have dressed himself by staring at his TV’s test pattern, and the movie embraces the energy of all his clashing colors. The races have the pounding force of thunder and the jolting immediacy of lightning. The director Randall Wallace and his crew, including the cinematographer, Dean Semler, find clever ways to upend the many cliches of this sort of movie. One of them is to affix digital cameras to the horses or to shoot them in thrilling proximity. It’s a strategy that recalibrates what’s important about the races, which is not the outcome but the intense physicality of these animals. A second viewing or a passing knowledge of Secretariat’s success fails to diminish their power.

The standard victory montage is not a collection of images but a single shot of the horse crossing a finish line in the slowest of motion while audio commentary of the wins is pared down to snippets. That’s glorious ingenuity — all the better for setting it to the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.’’

Suspense accompanies each Triple Crown race, which the movie packs into the final 30 minutes without cramming them in. That also qualifies as an achievement. But again and again, I thought about the softer, more emotional action in the films of Douglas Sirk while I watched “Secretariat.’’ Sirk made lusciously tragic melodramas in the ’50s with stars like Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and if some of the framing, lighting, and close-ups here fail to achieve Sirk’s cinematic holiness, even the faintest echoes carry a kind of beauty.

Wallace also wrote the screenplay for “Braveheart’’ and “Pearl Harbor,’’ so that might be as far out on a limb as I’m willing to go. But grace is grace, and however it arrives, there’s no denying its presence. So when Lane, who is Jane Wyman spared all the pain, walks up to the horse, grabs a lathered sponge, and helps wash its hide, it’s an eloquent moment. That’s partly because the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ gospel chestnut “Oh Happy Day’’ is on the soundtrack. But it’s quite a moving sight: a CEO bonding, legally, with her best employee.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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SECRETARIAT Directed by: Randall Wallace

Written by: Mike Rich, adapted from the book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion’’ by William Nack

Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, Dylan Walsh, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, and Scott Glenn

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 115 minutes

Rated: PG (Brief mild language, chauvinism, intense horse racing, and some clothing bright enough to blind)

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