The year is 1973, the last time a horse won the Triple Crown. You don’t have to be a racetrack rat to appreciate great athleticism and with just a bit of research (or viewing footage of wins on YouTube) you can appreciate the strength and beauty of the thoroughbred Secretariat.
The movie “Secretariat” dwells more on the horse’s owner than the horse; perhaps that’s why it falls short. Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) has a husband and children and lives in Denver when news of her mother’s death takes her back to the old homestead. When her father dies, the challenge of maintaining the stable of horses wrests her from her family for long periods of time as financial concerns demand her attention. During one of these visits, the opportunity to keep the untested thoroughbred, Secretariat, whom she affectionately calls “Big Red,” is decided by a coin toss. Finally (and I mean finally), the title character is brought into the picture.
In a Jackie O.-styled blond wig, Lane does her best to portray the still living owner and spends quiet, pensive moments at the door to Big Red’s stable looking beseechingly into his eyes.
John Malkovich adds comic relief as the outlandishly clad but clever trainer hired by Chenery. Other cast members, including Scott Glenn and James Cromwell, have, alas, little screen time and even less opportunity to offer any substance to the film.
“Secretariat” may mean well, and because of the horse’s amazing accomplishments, the movie is a passable introduction to horse racing for the younger set.
The fact that Seabiscuit doesn’t appear on camera until 45 minutes into the movie of the same name gives a clear indication that this film is about far more than a horse. Based on the brilliant book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Lauren Hillenbrand, the screen adaptation by director Gary Ross weaves together the lives of three very different men who were affected by this horse of legend. In addition, the movie captures the essence of an era through terrific set design, cinematography and costuming.
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is guided by a positive vision for the future even in the desperate times of the Depression. He becomes a man of means by taking chances and being at the right place at the right time. Howard views adversity as a challenge toward a better life on and off the racetrack.
As a horse trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is far more concerned with the well-being of the thoroughbred than its winning record. A man of few words, he is as comfortable camping alone under the stars as he is strolling the paddocks of America’s most prestigious racetracks.
If a horse and his rider need a special connection to win, jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) and Seabiscuit personify that bond. When times were most desperate for his loving family, young Red was literally sent off to earn his keep. Like his future ride, the young man fought and overcame adversity.
There are hundreds in the cast of “Seabiscuit” but none as vital to the horse’s legend as the aforementioned trio. Yet without the smallish champion steed who won the hearts of a nation during the hard times of the 1930s and 1940s there is no story.
The bluegrass of Kentucky may offer a picturesque backdrop for the mint-julep-sipping crowd in haute couture chapeaus to wax nostalgic to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” but the grit and guts of the other side of the track are revealed in “Jockey.”
Directed and photographed by Kate Davis, this HBO documentary follows the careers of three jockeys. At 38, Shane Sellers has raced since 1983 and is on the fence about returning after a knee injury. Chris Rosier is a young rider living hand-to-mouth and trying to break into the business. Randy Romero is a jockey of legendary fame with more than 4,000 wins to his credit.
Sellers is candid about his desire to return to racing in spite of the fact that he would have to lose 20 pounds to reach his riding weight of 112 pounds. Frank about his concerns and hesitant to commit, he spends time trying to raise funds for Romero, who has amassed thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Romero’s career spanned more than 26 years and yet this racing star, whose body is ravaged, has become uninsurable. After years of vomiting to achieve weight, his teeth are ruined and his kidneys are failing. In his active riding days, a light bulb in “the box,” a sauna used for rapid weight reduction, exploded and burned his body. Twenty-three incidents of bone breakage have not dampened his love of riding.
Davis has done a superb job in demonstrating what these men (and now women) go through to pursue their life’s work. The jockey lives to ride.
Grading this week’s DVDs: the ABC’s
Mon, Mar 19, 2012
Politics, political figures and spies
Tue, Mar 6, 2012
Tue, Feb 14, 2012
And now, reality
Mon, Jan 30, 2012
Looking back on the year that was (Part 1 of 2)
Wed, Dec 7, 2011
Film buffs should revisit ‘Northwest’
Wed, Nov 2, 2011
Conspiracy theories played out on film
Tue, Oct 18, 2011
Mix-ups, marriage and horse management
Mon, Oct 3, 2011
Going ‘Grease,’ locally and on DVD
Tue, Sep 13, 2011
It’s All About the Music
Fri, Sep 9, 2011