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‘Secretariat’

Get a horse.

After all, we could use somebody — or something — to cheer these days.

Considering how few humans qualify as likely heroes in the current climate, "Secretariat’s" title character seems as good a prospect as any.

Back in the feel-bad early ’70s — 1973, to be exact — there weren’t many reasons to feel good.

Except, perhaps, when a certain rangy thoroughbred (originally dubbed Big Red) stepped onto the track and made horse-racing history as the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

Since Secretariat’s victory, only 1977’s Seattle Slew and 1978’s Affirmed have been able to follow in his hoofprints.

But, really, no horse could follow Secretariat.

As Sports Illustrated put it, his prodigious achievements meant "Secretariat suddenly transcended being a racehorse and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War."

Watching "Secretariat" gives us plenty of reasons why.

If only those reasons were half as glorious as the movie’s title character.

He deserves better. And so does Penny Chenery Tweedy (a suitably steely Diane Lane), who literally bets her family’s deep-in-debt horse farm on the colt’s racing success.

Raised in Virginia at the family’s Meadow Farm, Penny resides in Denver with her family, far from the farm where she learned about horses from her flinty breeder father (Scott Glenn).

His advancing years — and medical problems — prompt her return to Meadow Stables. Her brother (Dylan Baker), a stuffy college professor, wants to sell the place. Her tradition-bound husband (Dylan Walsh) wants her home and tending to her housewifely duties.

Despite their objections, however, Penny’s determined to revive Meadow Farm, no matter how daunting the task.

To prepare Big Red for the track, she hires eccentric Lucien Laurin (a gleefully quirky John Malkovich), who’s noted for his outlandish haberdashery — and his inability to train winners.

But there’s something special about this horse. Penny can sense it. Lucien can sense it. So can groom Eddie Sweat ("True Blood’s" Nelsan Ellis) and jockey Ron Turcotte (real-life jockey Otto Thorwarth, who’s expectedly convincing).

And when the so-called gentlemen of the racing establishment ridicule her, Penny maintains her composure. She knows something they don’t: Big Red, redubbed Secretariat by Meadow Farms’ longtime secretary (a warmly maternal Margo Martindale), has the speed, and the heart, to prove any and all doubters wrong.

Her rivals also discover that Penny’s a kindred spirit to her beloved horse when it comes to smarts and heart.

Following the formula he established in such fact-based, stand-up-and-cheer sports dramas as "The Rookie" and "Miracle," screenwriter Mike Rich emphasizes Penny’s underdog status in relentless fashion, occasionally bending the facts to accommodate his tunnel vision. (No mention is made, for example, of Secretariat’s Meadow Farms stablemate, Riva Ridge, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes the year before Secretariat’s record run.)

Then again, "Secretariat" can’t very well set up its title character as an upstart, so Penny’s there to provide another rooting interest.

Lane also handles dialogue a lot better than the five horses who play Secretariat. A pity the dialogue’s not up to Lane’s dramatic capabilities.

Maybe it’s because horse racing’s not the draw it once was, but "Secretariat" overflows with the kind of clunky exposition meant to explain the intricacies of the sport to audience members who can’t tell a filly from a colt. Problem is, none of the characters would ever say these things to each other, because they all know everything they’re explaining — and they all know they all know.

Yet director Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers") doesn’t seem to trust the inherent drama in Secretariat’s run to glory. Yes, we already know the story, but plenty of top-flight movies (including such classics as "All the President’s Men" and "United 93") grip audiences through compelling filmmaking, despite their foregone-conclusion nature.

By contrast, Wallace (whose screenplay credits include "Pearl Harbor" and the Oscar-nominated "Braveheart") too often treats "Secretariat" as an illustrated lecture, full of important Life Lessons, as Penny and her wonder horse show everyone what being a champion is all about. That holds true whether they’re playing to the old-boy racing network or Penny’s watching her teenage daughter’s flirtations with hippie-style war protest before finding true inspiration in her increasingly liberated, yet ever ladylike, mom.

Yet "Secretariat" does boast its undeniably thrilling aspects, almost all of them involving the title character in action. As director of photography Dean Semler demonstrated with his Oscar-winning "Dances With Wolves" camerawork, he’s got a definite knack for conveying emotion through motion. And "Secretariat’s" stirring racing sequences capture both the beauty and the pulse-pounding suspense of the title character’s awe-inspiring feats.

Now that the Hollywood Western has pretty much ridden off into the sunset, we don’t get much chance to appreciate the magic of horses in action.

"Secretariat," happily, gives us that chance. And if we have to sit through more than a few thuddingly obvious observations to do so, at least there’s reason enough to cheer — if not, perhaps, to stand up at the same time.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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