Thursday, April 24, 2014

Tribeca ’14: Slaying the Badger

This almost goes without saying, but good golly, did the American cycling establishment ever pick the wrong athlete to put all their PR chips on. It is especially frustrating considering what a great champion they had in Greg LeMond. LeMond has indeed had his issues with Sheryl Crow’s ex, but his greatest rivalry was with a member of his own team. John Dower chronicles the pitched battle between LeMond and Bernard “The Badger” Hinault in Slaying the Badger, which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

LeMond was the great American hope of cycling at a time when the sport was totally off the American radar. At least the French noticed when he started dominating international competitions. Soon the American was recruited for the prestigious La Vie Claire team, headed by Hinault, the four time Tour de France winner. There was a general understanding if LeMond would help Hinault win a coveted fifth Tour in 1985, Hinault would ride in support of LeMond in 1986. It was not just unspoken agreement, it was evidently quite well verbalized.

LeMond held up his end of the bargain in 1985, albeit under controversial circumstances. Frankly, he probably could have won, but deliberately held back on coach Paul Köchli’s instructions. After the fact, he learned Hinault’s momentary setback involved far more lost time than the coach let on. As a result, he felt rather betrayed when Köchli introduced a new policy for 1986: every man for himself.

It might sound like hyperbole, but Slaying could arguably be considered the sports documentary equivalent of Rashomon. Few docs on any subject feature such widely divergent interpretations of the same events. For what its worth, the archival interview and press conference footage consistently support LeMond’s side of the story.

Even when wearing an uncomfortable looking back brace necessitated by an auto accident, LeMond is a lively, but well spoken interview subject—and he has much to say. Scenes with his wife Kathy further humanize him, clearly suggesting they still have that old magic going on. Appropriately, Dower also scores a sit down with The Badger, who somehow comes through the film relatively unsullied. Köchli is a different matter. His dissembling and hair-splitting degenerates into a downright risible spectacle. If backpedalling were a sport in its own right, he would be its Michael Jordan.

Even if you know every stage of the 1986 Tour by heart, Dower still builds the suspense quite adroitly. By the same token, viewers who only know the sport for its unfortunate recent developments will find themselves completely caught up in the film. This is just first class documentary storytelling all the way around. Highly recommended, Slaying the Badger screens again this Saturday (4/26) as part of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.