Though nominally about a racehorse, "Secretariat" opens with a rapturous golden sky and a near-ecstatic reading from the Book of Job. It's almost like the movie is sending some kind of, I don't know, message.
It turns out Walt Disney Pictures has been holding previews for what marketing types call "faith-based" audiences. It's a familiar strategy, one that helped Warner Bros. build a groundswell for last year's "The Blind Side," another sports drama with religious overtones. You don't need to know all that, however, to detect the sermonizing in "Secretariat."
The story would have been inspirational enough: A plucky middle-class housewife, Penny Chenery Tweedy (a very good Diane Lane), elbows her way past an old-boys network and into history, becoming the owner of the 1973 Triple Crown winner, the first in 25 years. It's a classic underdog story - John Malkovich plays the coaxed-from-retirement trainer, Lucien Laurin - that also has a touch of genuine feminism. (Dylan Walsh is Penny's husband, one of several harrumphing men in her life.)
But writer Mike Rich wants everything predestined and magical. Penny's ailing father (Scott Glenn) blesses the horse before dying: "Let him run his race." Another character canonizes Penny: "Great colts come from great sires." And you can supply your own ending to this line, from the beatific horse groomer: "I don't know the ways of God, ma'am, but . . . "
It's one thing to cast Secretariat as a kind of superathlete - he arguably was - but director Randall Wallace (the less-than-subtle "Braveheart") insists on turning the horse into Christ himself. The sound that accompanies his final win: a gospel choir, of course.