Disney sports movies, with the sole exception of Miracle, never found their groove after Remember the Titans. There was that swimming movie no one remembers, and that baseball flick, The Rookie. They’re so formulaic it’s sickening, but credit to Secretariat for doing something different: eliminating the bored wife character.
Actually, scratch that. It’s still here, but it’s a guy now. Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) is the leader here, her husband Jack (Dylan Walsh) forced to stay at home take care of the kids, and look frustrated when Penny’s not around. Hooray for the feminist movement then?
This all means that Penny has to give that inspirational speech too, this one coming not long after her father’s death during a discussion about the estate. Her rant about believing in things, never giving up, and taking a chance would make Vince Lombardi cringe for its corniness. There’s a villain here too, spoken like a true underdeveloped jerk because he has almost no importance to the story, but the audience can’t relate to a horse. Besides, all writer Mike Rich has to do is clone Jon Voight from Glory Road.
Even beyond the myriad of painful sports movie cliches, Secretariat survives by a thread due to its cinematography. That’s all it has: sprawling farmland and a jaw droppingly beautiful sunsets. That’s not much of a movie. The film’s drama of Penny’s mother passing is a needless way to begin the story, but it’s begging for some emotional involvement where there is none. It’s the worst kind of film manipulation, blatant and unrelenting.
As is always the case with sports films, the story that spawned this piece is fantastic. The turmoil, the drama, and the people behind it all worthy of their place in history. On screen, they don’t have enough to carry them over the predictability and familiar character traits. The spark that Secretariat needs never comes.
Disney’s AVC encode for Secretariat runs the gauntlet for filmmaking, shot on digital and film, the glaring differences doing the look no favors. The mish-mash results from the Phantom HD, Panavision Genesis, and Kodak film stocks are glaring, the motion constantly changing speeds, and the grain almost accentuated to match the heavy noise caused by the digital.
It’s an odd choice, the film set in the late ’60s and early ’70s, given a clear coat thanks to the digital that doesn’t necessarily fit the era. The end result is something like Public Enemies, a ’30s gangster picture shot with a modern eye. The result here is the same, although there is zero question as to the ability of digital to reproduce this Louisiana location shoot. The farm is marvelous in its beauty, the wealth of greenery that is visible suitably striking and natural. Once onto the track, nothing changes, the countless fans individually rendered and the finely raked dirt visible down to individual sand grains.
Facial detail never finds that same consistency, even if it’s found at all. The best shots for close-ups are those shot on film (with a couple of exceptions), although the somewhat noisy encode isn’t doing it much in the way of favors either. A late dinner scene with Diane Lane and John Malkovich is swarmed by minor artifacts, enough to be a distraction. Softness becomes a secondary problem, hardly aided by the already smooth nature of the photography.
Colors tend to veer towards saturated, the pleasing primaries outdoors and on the track eye-catching in their beauty. It falls flat early at the mother’s funeral, the garish teal and orange palette hardly simulating mourning, and more like sympathy for the audience for having to sit through yet another movie intent on using this same look. Still, the majority looks fine, those basic, naturally vibrant hues never overdone. From the blues of the jockey’s uniform to the variety of hippie clothing worn by the daughter, not much falters in this regard.
Black levels maintain their aggressiveness with limited loss of shadow detail. Where the detail falters, the contrast and blacks work together to maintain a tight dimensionality. Looking at the blacks alone, there is no indication this wasn’t done on film, typical of the Genesis. One final note concerns the horse races, shot from first-person, on the ground, and even in front of the animals. These brief snippets carry a notably degraded look, the shooting conditions demanding a tougher camera, not quality. The end result is slightly jarring, but not appalling considering how brief these edits are.
The audio mix here is one of raw power, the racing scenes ranking amongst the best sports movie mixes ever. Hooves pound against the track with weight, every step delivering a slight shock to the system. To build drama, some are further accentuated with even deeper, richer bass that is everything the viewer wants from this format.
It blends beautifully too, the track commentator always firmly situated in the surrounds, never lost even when the camera gets right in the race, the audio following. Cheering, adoring fans always light up the surrounds, panning appropriately should the horses turn a corner.
A large portion of the film concerns those races, while the warmth of those farm scenes is not lost. The echo in the sparse rooms of the farmhouse is fantastic, adding natural depth to the dialogue. Everything around them is alive too, insects and birds freely chirping in every channel. Flawless.
Director Randall Wallace takes the solo reigns for a commentary track, continuing on over 10-minutes of deleted scenes. Heart of a Champion is the making-of mixed with the true story itself. Choreographing the Races details how they were planned and then shot. Director’s Inspiration is a great back-and-forth conversation between Wallace and the real Penny Chenery. A multi-angle featurette looks at the final race Secretariat needed to secure the Triple Crown, also offering the choice of multiple commentators. A music video and a bunch of trailers remain.