Until two years ago, Greg LeMond was the first, but not only, American winner of the Tour de France, the pinnacle of competitive cycling. After Lance Armstrong, here casually and wholly admonished as the gods of cycling now demand, was stripped of his titles, LeMond remains the only champion from the United States. His chief rival was also his teammate, the last Frenchman to win the Tour, Bernard “The Badger” Hinault, and their story is quintessential sports documentary. Slaying The Badger does much to accentuate and massage their quarrels into something deserving of 90 minutes of screen time. Far more interesting, however, is the sport itself—its simple complexities and bending strategies, which goes unexplored.
Director John Dower, a veteran of television documentaries, comfortably shoots this latest 30 For 30 with a particular eye for drama. Slaying The Badger intentionally eschews cinéma vérité with “chapter” titles in striking graphic text and leading questions tossed in from off-camera. As such, it rarely seems interested in the truth at the heart of the film’s tension. However, the story of LeMond and Hinault was always a circumstantial story and the method works. It’s just an odd choice for a documentary about a sport, clearly in the shadow of Lance Armstrong (as one journalist says), to have such a tailored, crafted film.
Unfortunately, this narrative hand-holding did not extend to any real explanation of cycling. It’s a clichéd staple of sports documentaries, but even some instruction would greatly help the lay viewer. The great paradox of competitive cycling, and one that makes very little sense to those not familiar with it, is that it is an individual sport played by teams. The teams, internally and informally, pick one member to go for the win and the rest, called domestiques (literally “servants”), back him up by taking turns riding in front of the Yellow Jersey hopeful so that he can draft off them. There are attacks and counterattacks, mountain and time-trial strategies (the Tour is 21 stages over 3 weeks), and a whole mess of complex tactics that go largely unexplained. Again, it’s a shame, because the drama stems from the busting of certain cycling mores, which are not readily apparent.
Luckily, Dower has other sources of drama. The characters populating the cycling world, a sport relatively new to America, are straight out of a John Huston film. Chief among them—and the real villain of the story, if there is one—is Hinault and LeMond’s coach, Larry David look-alike Paul Koechli. Koechli Fred Astaires all around Dower’s questions, sounding more like an indicted politician than a winning coach. He brings a nice, weird spice among all the other white men interviewed. Despite the title of the film, and the book it cribs its name from, this was less about felling Hinault than navigating the old-world politics of European cycling. I’m continually amazed when hyper-competitive, world-class athletes are shocked (shocked!) when other hyper-competitive athletes act hyper-competitively. Yet, we listen as LeMond waxes pathetic over what is difficult to classify as a full betrayal.
While the characters are interesting, the emotional drama feels more manufactured than it should. It hurts the film that it is clear neither hold bad blood for each other. Again, LeMond and Hinault seem to recognize that while it was a disagreeable situation, neither were really at fault—the puppet masters, coach Koechli and team owner Bernard Tapie, truly controlled the strings. This isn’t Miller-Lee animosity, and neither go for blood, LeMond’s strange, repeated wish for fisticuffs aside (but when they saw each other a few years ago, they mostly just talked about their kids).
Slaying The Badger excels when cycling takes center stage. The ’86 Tour was uniquely exciting and LeMond’s comeback both riveting and a culture-shifting blow to a European dominance (he would rack up two before he was, and this is real, shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident). Hearing the journalists recount—and witnessing LaMond himself watch—his first victory is endearing and administers all the feel-goods a sports documentary promises to deliver.
Fascinating herself and far from quiet stereotype, Kathy LeMond delivers some of the greatest insights into who her husband really is. “You were shaken emotionally,” she tells him at one point, a statement he vigorously denies. Watching Kathy in old footage, so young and in an era before wives were part of PR strategies, I kept wishing for more of this story, especially the races, through her eyes. A beautiful moment of dramatic irony occurs as the audience knows that LeMond has crashed on a critical time trial and we watch as his wife, riding along the route, learns the same. On the other side of the coin is Hinault’s deliciously weaselly smile when he claims he still could have won in ‘86. It is these genuine moments of anguish and triumph that make cycling, and any sport, worth watching some 30 years later. I just wish Slaying The Badger had more of them.
- I would definitely pick The Badger to win in a fight: He flew off a cliff, climbed up, and kept riding. And he started randomly punching union leaders because they were “in his way.” And he looks like a badger.
- “He ate ice cream! No one ate ice cream!”
- We have evidently moved into the joking-about-blood-bags-in-hotel-rooms stage of recovering from the doping era.
- LeMond is surprisingly nonchalant about both being in a horrible car accident and getting shot in the neck and chest with a shotgun. Maybe he’s tougher than I thought.