LOS ANGELES, October 5, 2010--The best thing in "Secretariat," the new movie from Walt Disney Pictures, is John Malkovich. His wardrobe is out of Spike Jones and his part is supposed to be Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's tight-lipped trainer, but the way the role is written, Malkovich could just as well be Wayne Lukas. He's got a clever answer for everything and he's as droll as someone out of one of Noel Coward's drawing rooms. But while Malkovich is entertaining, what he can't donate to "Secretariat" is authenticity, something the film left in its other pants pocket. When Secretariat swept the Triple Crown in 1973, I was there, and it's impossible to sit through the picture without wondering why the director, Randall Wallace, shot a script that had so many holes and took so many liberties.

Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat and who is superbly played by Diane Lane, knew going in that this was Hollywood, but even a resigned Chenery had trouble accepting that Riva Ridge didn't exist as far as Disney was concerned. It was Riva Ridge, the year before Secretariat, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, forging a career that produced more than $1 million in earnings and kept Chenery's family farm in Virginia from turning turtle. But for Riva Ridge's career, Chenery might not have even owned Secretariat by the time he turned three. In fact, Chenery told me that had her father, Christopher Chenery, died in November of 1972 instead of January of 1973, she probably would have been forced to sell Secretariat outright.

That part isn't in William Nack's terrific book, written 35 years ago when the poker was hot, but everything else is, and it would have better served the picture and the screenwriter, Mike Rich, if they had hewed to the source material more closely. The true Secretariat story really doesn't require any embellishment, there were enough bells and whistles to carry two films. But instead, what moviegoers will get are some cartoonish characters such as Nestor Serrano, playing an overheated Pancho Martin, the trainer of Sham, and James Cromwell, unfairly thrust into playing an Ogden Phipps who, embittered that he lost the rights to Secretariat in that famous coin toss, taunts Penny Chenery with second guesses at every turn.

At one point, Phipps makes Chenery a cash offer for Secretariat that would have exceeded the $6-million-plus that his breeding syndication brought. It's Wallace's way of showing that Chenery wouldn't have given up the horse at any price, even though Chenery says now that there was never a firm offer for Secretariat, from Phipps or anybody.

As for Sham, the picture leads you to believe that he won the Wood Memorial, a major prep for the Derby. The actual 1-2-3 in the race was Angle Light-Sham-Secretariat. Angle Light was also trained by Laurin, but owned by a fellow Canadian, Edwin Whittaker. Perhaps Wallace thought that the average moviegoer wouldn't be able to savvy two horses with the same trainer but different ownership, but in the process the film rewrites history by revising the finish of an important race. According to the Nack book, Chenery and Whittaker had nasty words by the time their horses got to Churchill Downs, and that would have made for much better high drama than Ogden Phipps' feeble I-told-you-sos to Chenery throughout the picture.

Margo Martindale has a nice turn as Elizabeth Ham, the long-time secretary of the Chenery farm who is always there when Penny Chenery needs someone to lean on. I also liked Nelsan Ellis as Secretariat's faithful groom, Eddie Sweat, although a rabble-rousing soliloquy by Sweat on the eve of the Derby is over the top and embarrassing. The find of the film is Otto Thorwarth, the journeyman jockey from Arkansas who plays Secretariat's regular rider, Ron Turcotte. Thorwarth, who had never acted, was so good in early scenes that his role was beefed up before the film was finished.

They asked Thorwarth for help along the way, to make sure not too much was out of place, but most of of his advice went unheeded. He pointed out that Secretariat wouldn't be eating oats out of a common water bucket, and that Turcotte wouldn't be carrying his saddle around, and still be wearing racing silks, for hours after the crushing defeat in the Wood. But the filmmakers wanted Turcotte to do something that showed anger, and throwing a saddle carried the day.

At the screening I attended, Wallace said that the film had put together some of the best racing action ever photographed, but I thought most of the race sequences were ordinary, and a throwback to the way the movies treated the sport decades ago. Evangeline Downs and Keeneland as the Triple Crown venues were obvious imposters. The smartest thing Wallace did, for the Preakness, was to just use the actual rerun of the national telecast.

Ignored, along with Riva Ridge and Angle Light, was Penny Chenery's first divorce, from Jack Tweedy. The Tweedys' marriage was crumbling at the time of the Triple Crown, and would not survive the year after Secretariat's sweep. Marital discord? Divorce? In a Disney film? Only when pigs fly.