ESPN 30 for 30: Slaying the Badger (2014)

Directed by John Dower

Whenever I see a film like Slaying the Badger, I always recall the beautiful words of Roger Ebert in his glowing review of the British film Chariots of Fire: “I have no interest in running and am not a partisan in the British class system. Then why should I have been so deeply moved…” While also loving Chariots of Fire, it is the sentiment that often rings so true in many other scenarios for me. Slaying the Badger is a film about cycling. I have no interest in cycling or the Tour de France. And yet, with all its thrilling narrative and competitive spirit, the film manages to amaze and electrify the event of the 1986 Tour de France, which pitted French legend Bernard Hinault (“The Badger”) against up and coming American Greg LeMond in a battle of teammates, seeking to attain the same goal, victory.

In the course of a film that explores the rivalry and friendship between two great riders competing on the same cycling team, seeking to attain the same goal, director John Dower manages to also infuse his film with a great sense of what it means to be an athlete. And when I say “athlete”, the definition I have in mind includes more than simple physical, athletic talent. It includes elements of competition and psychological gamesmanship that is important in any type of game or competition that pits like-minded people against one another. Seeing the dynamic that LeMond and Hinault had on the same team is simply a magical combination of drama and fulfilled competitiveness.

As the story progresses we see the desires of each man wax and wane. The aging legend is unwilling to part with his glory days while the young star is unwilling to accept a second place role on the team. The politics that went into this cycling team are powerful, and really do make the narrative become much more in the vein of All the President’s Men, a thrilling treatment of political interaction, than almost all of the other films in this series, which treat their subjects in a very straight forward, chronicle style. In reality, even as an American, I can see the case for each of these athletes.

On the one side, Greg LeMond pouting about Hinault not racing for him to win is selfish. If Hinault beat him, he beat him. As the film says, it is an individual sport played with teams, and in the end, an individual wins the race, not the team. But on the other, LeMond was lied to about the strategy of the team by both Hinault and the team’s coach. It is a difficult balance, but what resulted was one of the more spectacular chronicling of a sports event in the series. The political bantering and positioning leading up to the 1986 Tour de France is the setup of this brilliant sports thriller, letting the competition speak for itself when the time comes in the film.

I never quite knew that a film about cycling would ever be this involving and exciting, but Dower really gives us a great hour and a half to get to know these riders, their motivations and goals, and then sets them loose on the viewer to wow like the best sporting events in the world do. If I had one gripe it would be the obligation to include a segment on Lance Armstrong and the doping scandals in the years following the runs of Hinault and LeMond. While I understand the thought that in a movie about cycling aimed at an American audience, the elephant in the room of Lance Armstrong should be brought up, the film would have played more effectively leaving the tremendous story of these two marvelous athletes and competitors on their own instead of associating them at the end with such a seedy story as doping. The tacked on bit about doping aside, however, Slaying the Badger delivers on so many levels, placing it among the series’ best.

*** 1/2 – Great

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