2005Director: Tómas Gislason
Cast: Bjarne Riis, Ivan Basso, Lance Armstrong
s my esteemed colleague Jay Millikan so succinctly expressed in his Narnia review, most films exist in the continuum between profound and appalling—occasionally engaging, sometimes tedious, and yet still tempting to watch. Until recently, my conscience wrestled constantly with the knowledge that I was frequently spending fourteen dollars on forgettable features, and in particular, that I was allowing myself to be swept away by waves of celluloid emotion. Fortunately my latest girlfriend works for a cinema chain so I no longer have to pay, feel obligated to ‘get into’ the movie, or become annoyed when I get teary over the death of a CGI monkey. Plus, I get free ice cream. Score!
To coincide with the “Tour Down Under,” a monstrous promotion for cycling in Australia slap-bang in the middle of the Tennis Open, and a forty-degree summer, Tómas Gislason’s documentary screened in theatres. Overcoming follows the travails of Danish cycling legend Bjarne Riis and his international CSC team’s assault on the 2004 Tour de France. As the first in my trilogy of documentary reviews (with Dirt and The Devil and Daniel Johnston to follow anon), Overcoming is an inauspicious beginning and a perfect example of a film that is neither great nor awful, but just there, right where it should be.
When The Commitments was released in the States, legend has it a booklet of translations of the zany Irish idioms was put together for baffled movie execs. Overcoming could probably have benefited from something similar. Gislason drops the viewer straight into the world of professional cycling with no explanation forthcoming of what the Tour de France is, how it works, who all these people are or what a peloton is. Although appreciative of the absence of a front-heavy info dump, I was quickly concerned for the uninitiated audience members who were scratching their noggins in puzzlement.
The plot, for indeed there is one, involves ruthless ex-cyclist Bjarne Riis’s formation of a disparate new cycling team to take on the establishment. His training methods are unconventional, his focus unremitting, and his temper never far from flaring up. Imagine Full Metal Jacket on a bike. The recruits are honed into the best shape of their lives, and then let loose into the chaos that is the Tour de France. Some fall by the wayside (literally, in a series of graphic crashes that are not for the faint-hearted); others sacrifice themselves for their comrades, and one becomes a hero.
Sound like a scripted feature with Gene Hackman as the cruel but fair team owner and Colin Farrell as the battered but spunky lead cyclist? Curiously, it feels that way, too. In fact, during one moving scene where gnarly team doctor Ole Kaare Føli confronts his old friend about his emotional detachment and the effect it is having on team morale, the close-up camera work highlighting the anguish in the old doc’s eyes and his careful, soft manner of speech had me convinced I was watching a professional actor at the height of his prowess, as opposed to a Danish physiotherapist with zero camera time.
This is precisely the problem with Gislason’s feature. With the documentary feature fast becoming a popular niche genre that can attract cinemagoers weaned on reality television and used to watching “ordinary” people on camera, the temptation is to up the stakes and attempt to make a uniquely cinematic feature. Fast edits, split screens, pounding, relentless music, sweeping strings to hammer home the emotional moments, and an unfashionable, uncomfortable view of “winners vs. losers” succeed not in enriching this documentary film, but in extricating it from the medium altogether.
Overcoming lacks the distance between director and subject so essential to documentary film-making, leaving us with a 118-minute advertisement for Team CSC. The fact that Lance Armstrong cannily won the Tour that year is mentioned only as an excuse for them to call him an asshole, a glaring contradiction, as they all wear his yellow wristbands throughout the film. The unforgivable sideswipes at his motivation for calling to console a Team CSC member, whose mother has been diagnosed with cancer, sours the mood, rendering Overcoming one for the cycling purists.