A tip that may or may not ever be useful to you: They don’t have movie theaters in southwestern Nicaragua. I know that because that’s where I am and because I have been searching. Turns out the nearest theater is in Managua, a 2 ½-hour drive from my location, and the only American films it shows are outdated.
So, I dodged a cart pulled by a pair of oxen and ducked into the only DVD store in the tiny, dusty town of Tola, and was not necessarily surprised to see a very limited selection. All of the 14 movies were used, so I opted for the DVD cover that looked to be in the best shape, and as recent as I could hope for. The winner was “Secretariat.”
I was actually excited about finding “Secretariat.” Its credentials read like a resume for an Academy Award. The director, Randall Wallace, wrote “Braveheart” (a favorite). The cinematographer, Dean Semler, won an Oscar for “Dances with Wolves” (another favorite). Diane Lane and John Malcovich starred (favorites), and its plot was very closely based on the most fascinating horse in modern history, Secretariat.
But it was off to a bad start. I spent the first five minutes of the movie trying to get over how unattractive they were able to make Diane Lane. Gorgeous, classy, natural Diane Lane had her hair done like a 1950s lunch lady without the net. Now I understand that the makeup artists were trying to mimic the ‘do of the real Penny Chenery, but being that Hollywood breaks every other rule, this is the one they chose to not bend?
Anyway, let me get to the plot. Penny Chenery’s (Lane) mother has passed away, and the employees of her family owned and operated high-dollar horse ranch don’t believe that Penny’s grieving father is capable of making sound business decisions anymore. Penny leaves her own children and husband back in Colorado to fend for themselves while she tries to save the horse farm. The finances are in shambles, the staff needs a swift kick in the rear, and the only hope they have of salvaging their familial pride and joy lies in the belly of a mare. As tradition dictates, there is a coin toss just prior to the birth of the new foals that allows the breeders to choose which foal he or she wants. Penny has a hunch of her own, and although she loses the coin toss, her opponent chooses the foal she did not want.
Little Secretariat (but they called him Big Red affectionately) bumbles around in the stall on his birthday, and Penny and crew suspect immediately that they have made a great decision. The foal stands up faster than any foal they have ever witnessed. In the pastures, he can’t stop running. His spirit is as clear as rain water, and he will be a champion. But even born champions have to work hard.
Penny hires eccentric Lucien Lauren (Malcovich) to train Secretariat, and hires controversial jockey Ronnie Turcotte (Otto Thalworth), who ran his last horse so hard that the horse’s heart literally burst during the race.
You know what happens. You’ve heard the story told a hundred times. Secretariat wins the final leg of the Triple Crown by an astounding 31 lengths. That’s unheard of. His heart was three times the size of a normal horse. And even though one other horse has won the Triple Crown since Secretariat in 1973, it is Secretariat’s name that remains legendary. It is Secretariat’s story that gets told.
Too bad Hollywood didn’t insist on better acting. Disappointingly, Lane and Malkovich looked like a couple of drama school dropouts who practice making serious, stern faces in their bathroom mirrors at home. A shame, really, because who doesn’t love an inspirational animal story?
I still do. And the fact that “Secretariat” is family-friendly and has a happy ending makes me like it even more. I suppose I’ll just have to overlook the bad acting. And Diane Lane’s ridiculous hairdo. And Malkovich’s pants. And the cheesy dialogue.
And you should, too.
Rated PG-13 for brief mild language and running at 128 minutes, Secretariat rounds the corner on the track with 3 ½ bags of popcorn.