When the star of your movie is a horse, you're allowed certain maneuvers: The camera will take at least 10 runs at looking into the soul of the horse through his eyes. This will result in very good views of some watery brown horsey eyes. Spiritual Horse Moments will include sunsets, lightning storms, hosings-down, rearings-up, an orchestra, and the isolated, wheezy sound of horse-breathing turned up to maximum volume just before the bell rings and the race starts. All these things are the cost of doing horse-movie business and are, actually, sort of fun. (Winner of Best Crazy-Horsey-Eye Zoom in Movie History: The Man from Snowy River. Trust me. Go to it.) Disney's Secretariat exceeds its allowance of horse-foolery only when the voice of Diane Lane voices-over the words of God describing a warhorse to Job. God says a warhorse will rush a sword. Okay, but Secretariat just wants to run around a track, man.
"A 3-year-old stallion, nipping and bucking all the time? No, we didn't have a spiritual connection... he didn't stand still long enough for me to look in his eye and say a prayer" is what real-life owner Penny Chenery, now 88, soberly told the New York Times about her relationship with Secretariat. You get the feeling you'd like this woman, and Secretariat is a fictionalization of her story as much as the horse's. Sisterhood is packed inside the Trojan horse of this movie like a full-up uterus ready to spit out some real live feminism. Yeah.
"You've taught them what a real woman is," the husband tells the wife about their two daughters, who were growing up to be a couple of dirty hippies in Pittsburgh while their mother was down South graciously and firmly overseeing the most loved horse in racing history while making sculptural use of hair spray. That bit about hair spray is not a jab in any way: This real-woman thing is actually sort of touching. And a real woman, according to this movie, loves dirty hippies who protest the Vietnam War. Yeah.
John Malkovich plays the eccentric trainer, which means he hardly acts and he uses that gross lips-parted-and-gone-slack face. If you watch True Blood, you will be thrilled to see that Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) is Secretariat's best friend. The race scenes are nerve-racking in the best way. There's mud flying and hoof cams and the horse actors are gorgeous, plus it's real truthiness: Time-lapse photography revealed that Secretariat's 25-foot stride was the longest on record, and when they autopsied him after he died at age 19 (in 1989), they found that his heart was two and a half times larger than that of the average horse. The horse deserves the movie. The movie doesn't quite deserve the horse, but it beats an afternoon at the amateur races.