Oct. 7 2010 12:00 AM

Sturdy 'Secretariat' is in it for the long run

(Wednesday, Oct. 6) In horse racing, taking the Triple Crown requires winning the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. In Hollywood, there’s a similar sort of Triple Crown: winning the endorsement of critics, ticket buyers and, finally, Academy Award voters.

It’s a rare horse that takes all three races, and it’s not often that a movie is strongly endorsed by all three camps. But last year, the football drama “The Blind Side” managed to pull off the trick, earning mostly favorable reviews, a domestic gross of over $255 million and, perhaps most surprisingly, a best actress Oscar for Sandra Bullock.

You can bet Disney is hoping for the same sort of magic with “Secretariat,” as it charges into theaters Friday.

The studio has been screening the film for weeks to build up positive buzz (quite successfully, in fact) and there has already been discussion about a possible nomination for Diane Lane’s work as the iron-willed Penny Chenery Tweedy, a Denver housewife who saves her family’s Virginia farm through sheer luck and perseverance.

Another plus: Even people who don’t follow all things equestrian have heard of Secretariat’s sensational run in the 1970s. Michael Oher and Leigh Anne Touhy didn’t have that sort of name recognition prior to the release of “The Blind Side.”

So “Secretariat” is almost guaranteed to bring in an opening-weekend audience. But, as several skeptics note with regard to racehorses in “Secretariat,” out on the course, it’s all about endurance.

That might not be a problem either.

Director Randall Wallace has put together a movie that skillfully plays on a number of levels: as a female-empowerment drama, as an underdog-overcomes-the-odds saga, and as a piece of family-friendly entertainment that won’t bore adults.

The film finds parallels in the journeys of its key figures, Penny and Secretariat. Penny is first seen presiding over an upper middle class late-1960s household, in which her straitlaced husband (Dylan Walsh) calls the shots. That changes when Penny receives word that her mother has died and her father (Scott Glenn) is in no condition to continue operating the family horse-breeding business. Although Penny thinks she’s stepping in temporarily, she decides to take the reins after her uncaring brother (Dylan Baker) tries to pressure her into selling off the farm.

Penny will eventually stake her fortune on a colt nicknamed Big Red that she sees as a possible champion, even though most of her associates are doubtful. With the help of an eccentric French-Canadian trainer (John Malkovich) and a devoted secretary (Margo Martindale), Penny pushes forward, Big Red becomes Secretariat and racing history is soon to be rewritten.

The movie doesn’t explicitly tell us that in order to shepherd Secretariat to the winners’ circle Penny had to end her marriage, although a breakdown between the Tweedys is definitely implied. Instead, “Secretariat” focuses on the difficulties and delights of working in the tradition-bound world of racing. Lane gives one of her warmest and most winning performances as Penny, who isn’t always successful when it comes to balancing the demands of a new career and her maternal responsibilities. Malkovich and Martindale are also terrific as Penny’s indispensable assistants, and Otto Thorwarth is entertainingly feisty as Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s determined jockey.

First-rate cinematography and editing make the racing scenes exceptionally exciting, even if you know the outcome. Secretariat got a lot of people cheering almost 40 years ago, and “Secretariat” is likely to do the same today.