Slaying the Badger
Directed by John Dower
Before Lance Armstrong, there was Greg LeMond, who is now the first and only American to win the Tour de France. In this engrossing documentary, LeMond looks back at the pivotal 1986 Tour, and his increasingly vicious rivalry with friend, teammate, and mentor Bernard Hinault. The reigning Tour champion and brutal competitor known as “The Badger,” Hinault ‘promised’ to help LeMond to his first victory, in return for LeMond supporting him in the previous year. But in a sport that purports to reward teamwork, it’s really every man for himself.
See more films
★★★½ review by Nick Riley on Letterboxd
This isn't a great documentary from a technical perspective, nor is it an accessible film for outsiders. But there is something enchanting about a treacherous intra-team slugfest that's the calm before the storm of the paradigm-shifting doping era of cycling.
John Dower's direction crafts a chaotic first act that does little to coherently lay the groundwork for the meat of the film. It's an almost fatal blow--but those willing to stick with it are rewarded with well-edited sequences that not only logistically lay out the stakes of each stage of the world famous Tour de France but also try to keep up with each of the main players both then and now. Sure, Dower never bothers to dig deep into either athletes' motivations or personality, but it doesn't keep the main plotline from being any less compelling.
In the end, Slaying the Badger is an age-old tale of integrity in sports, where Machiavellian ethics butt up against the unwritten rule of teammate loyalty. And then in the end, none of it matters because there's a new wave of athlete willing to blow past any ethical qualms to reach inhuman levels of performance. As much as a monster as Bernard Hinault was, he at least got there on his own accord. That's more than Lance Armstrong could ever claim as he vaulted to record wins that would ultimately be wiped from the record books when the truth came to light. And that's where Dower's ode to a golden age of rivalry shines brightest: A man is only worth as much as his character, and an athlete is but a single man on the playing field.
★★★★★ review by onthewall2983 on Letterboxd
The real pleasure of the 30 For 30 series sometimes is a film comes along that both draws you in with the story to be told, and (at least from my perspective as someone who's not generally interested in sports) can also educate you to the intricacies of the sport in a way aligned with the human drama that isn't boring.
That is certainly the case here with me. What very little I knew about cycling began and ended with Lance Armstrong. I hadn't realized an American had won the Tour de France before, nor cared much. But about 10 minutes into this, I was swept completely into this world. And came away with great admiration for Greg LeMond.
Also an admiration for the Tour itself. Even in the rather low-res footage, it has some amazing shots of France you'd probably otherwise see in a travel show. But here it's the field of play, and it provides an appropriately dramatic setting for the story told.
In America there is a grossly over-stated emphasis on competition and winning, that affects most facets of life here. And since the Reagan administration, it has mostly materialized in ghastly ways. But on the other hand, there are times where it is put to good use and shows the American character in a better light. This is certainly one of those stories.
★★★★ review by Mark_Lemmond on Letterboxd
Cycling has lost a lot of it's shine in recent years so the story of two greats that battled it out, one to be the first to six and one to be the first American champion makes for a very compelling story. Here's the real kicker though... they were teammates!
★★★½ review by Aaron T. Rex on Letterboxd
A compelling story that is not especially well told. Very standard talking heads stuff, but the story pulls through.
★★★½ review by Treble on Letterboxd
The Tour de France is not everyone’s cup of tea. There’s a huge disconnect between participation and viewing, as the only difference between what the pros appear to do on TV, and what do on your own two-wheeled friend is go faster for longer. And speed often doesn't translate well onto TV, particularly with pace cars and chase cams.
Hence the sports documentary, which humanises the event and gives it an edge based on personal insight and historical perspective. Focusing on the battle during the mid-eighties between multiple Tour winner and French native Bernard Hinault (comically nicknamed ‘The Badger’ for his aggressiveness on the track) and ingénue US rider Greg LeMond, Slaying the Badger is a gripping story, even for cycling agnostics.
Greg was scooped-up by Hinault’s race team (La Vie Claire), helped an injured Hinault to victory in the 1984 tour and was promised reciprocation the following year. It didn't happen. What follows is a great insight into one of the most significant events in cycling history, as LeMond battles in the 1986 Tour against not only the rest of the pack, but his own team, and the man who promised him victory then reneged.
Not only do you witness the personal battle between the fiery, difficult Breton and the equitable, magnanimous Californian but you see a clash of cultures in action, the duplicity of a race team who essentially absorbed the talented LeMond in order to keep him as a second-stringer and remove his competitive potential, and the start of US dominance in the sport for over a decade.
There are a few rough edges to the presentation that could have been rounded-off: more time with Hinault and less with LeMond, for balance’s sake, more detail on how LeMond’s career dovetailed into his later work with Lance Armstrong, and a longer runtime and a harder journalistic push on the team coach (Paul Köchli) and owner (Bernard Tapie) would have been nice. Tapie is a particularly interesting figure: a disingenuous individual who has business interests in cycling component manufacturer ‘Look’ and later became president of Marseilles Football Club, later imprisoned as part of a match fixing scandal.
A fascinating doc that even people disinterested in the sport should enjoy, it does – however - leave you with a sense of sadness around the damage Armstrong did to the sport, erasing his legacy and harming the standing of cycling in general, and the reputation of the impressive US teams of the era to boot.
- See all reviews