Excellence in any athletic pursuit is such a rare thing that it imprints itself upon your memory the very moment you catch a glimpse of it.
Michael Jordan shrugging his shoulders at his own shooting prowess. Barry Sanders sprinting seven yards back to get an extra fifty. Bo Jackson running himself ragged, powering over defenders, eventually ending his career in the process. And of course Secretariat, the picturesque and savagely fast "Big Red," bordering on the supernatural with his imposing speed.
The movie, to its credit, tells the story of this great horse, but it also tells the very real underdog story of the humans surrounding Secretariat. Diane Lane brings owner Penny Chenery to the big screen, and she does so with a deft and steady hand. Also delightful is John Malkovich as trainer Lucien Laurin, no one does madcap like the great Mr. Malkovich (see him in this month's Red for a similar experience). The acting works throughout, somehow injecting drama into a well-known narrative.
Speaking of, about that story, I'm sure results will vary depending on your prior knowledge. I knew the entire tale going in, so the inspiration came from how well each scene was executed. Director Randall Wallace does well adding little flourishes to the well-trodden "horse movie" racing scenes, making each competition feel both vibrant and intimate. Not much time is spent pondering Secretariat himself, which makes logical sense because what can mere mortals know of pure power? Wallace sticks with the drama behind the Chenery horse-racing operation, the interplay between husband and wife in the '70s, and the rivalry with Sham, a horse owned and operated by a team that we'll politely call "brash."
The only knock on Secretariat is that it has to conform to movie rules, while the horse did anything but. Secretariat was a true freak of nature, but the human brain couldn't withstand two hours of horse footage, heck there's probably only a half an hour of race footage that even exists. Flashes of brilliance are just that, seconds and minutes of outstanding performance that resonate to this day. But the film spends a vast majority of the time off the track, a decision I understand, but can't give full credit for, sorry Big Red.
The first time I saw Secretariat race, years after the fact, as a kid, I knew what I wanted to be. I didn't want to be a jockey, or a gambler, I wanted to be that stunning horse. Make no mistake, Secretariat was better at running than you and I will ever be at anything, including breathing, in our entire lives. Secretariat took his place alongside the Giant Sequoias of Yosemite and Ted Williams' .406 season as things that couldn't rightfully be explained by intellect alone. Because I think when we see certain events, these moments of sheer dominance, a wave of emotions hit all at once. Joy, sure, happiness at being lucky enough to witness something rare and significant. Awe, of course, because our everyday life doesn't prepare us to make sense of what our eyes are inputting. And finally sadness. Sadness that we'll probably never see anything like that again, sadness that something so beautiful has been hiding for so long, sadness that you can't hold onto it for a few more seconds. But it's worth it just to be there, and it's worth it to see. Secretariat was the best of us, though he wasn't human, though he raced almost 40 years ago. The film Secretariat seeks to honor that memory, and it largely succeeds.