Classic filmmaking pulls ‘Secretariat’ ahead

Oscar season kicked off last week with the first major contender presenting itself: David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” Gone are the days of sweeping epics taking home the gold — unless, of course, you pander to the Disney mode of filmmaking.

“Secretariat” is based on the true story of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a middle−aged housewife who takes over her family’s horse farm after her mother’s death and her father’s illness. Penny hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) to train a new colt that she believes could win the Triple Crown. The fact that the Triple Crown hadn’t been won in over 25 years doesn’t deter Penny from risking her family’s entire fortune on this venture.

Because the movie is a biography, the audience goes in understanding that Secretariat will indeed win the three races in question and that Penny Chenery will save her family and her farm. It’s Disney: Nothing bad will happen. Although this seems like it would make for a boring movie, director Randall Wallace captures the beauty of a powerful horse running to his destiny, and makes it easy to overlook the lack of suspense and be in awe of Secretariat.

Wallace films each race differently to keep things exciting: one from the point of view of Chenery’s family at home watching the television, one from the racetrack and one from the stands with the crowd’s reactions. It’s never boring to see Secretariat come from behind to blow all the other horses away.

Rather than being concerned with an underdog story like “Seabiscuit” (2003), Wallace focuses purely on the amazing creation of Secretariat. Much of the film has religious undertones, from the soundtrack to a voiceover reading from the book of Job; seeing Secretariat race really does feel like a religious experience, even for atheists in the audience.

If the horse itself is the magnificence the film needs, Lane’s performance is what grounds it in the human experience. Penny is a woman in a man’s world, and that trait is her greatest weapon. She’s beautiful, yet it’s easy to feel that she is a woman forced to choose between the career she loves and the family she wants to be with. It’s definitely a movie that touts feminine strength, a characteristic often missing from Disney films.

The movie wouldn’t be as strong without Lane in it: It would just be another movie about the ups and downs of horse racing. But Lane makes every movement and facial expression a meaningful gesture made to convey how she puts on a mask of confidence regarding her ability to coach Secretariat to a win. The few scenes in which she breaks down are meant to show that she could lose anything at any moment.

Malkovich brings a much−needed element of comedy to the film in his flamboyant portrayal of an aging trainer, and from the horse’s caretaker to Penny’s secretary, the cast fills itself out well enough to hold up under Lane’s thrilling performance.

There are the predictable Disney lines throughout the film, and the screenplay could have used some work, as it often totters between the meaningful and the silly. But the actors never let it get in their way; they just sashay right over it, doing the best they can and hoping the audience doesn’t notice.

In a season that’s bound to bring us a number of great films, “Secretariat” probably won’t hold up so well. It’s a little old−fashioned and somewhat predictable, but ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with the old style of Hollywood film that tugs at the heartstrings rather than the brains.