Overcoming – Review

Jan 25 2006

A stylistic look at CSC’s 2004 season. Directed by Tomas Gislason. Color, 105 minutes. (My apologies, but I simply cannot properly express my thoughts on this film in my typical criteria-driven format. I’ve just got way too much to say for informational bursts.)

I knew I was in for disappointment when I couldn’t change the aspect ratio; the film has been crammed from its original letterbox format into the 4:3 used by most TV sets, and pro riders simply do not need to look any skinner. I forgot that soon enough, though, when it became apparent that Overcoming really lacked a solid editorial or organizational structure. In the first 15 minutes, the viewer is bounced roughly from the Paris-Nice podium presentation, to the TdF prologue, to some sort of pain montage, to Bjarne Riis looking at catalogues, to the title sequence, to Jacob Piil losing a Tour stage, to a visual recap of Riis’ career, to Ivan Basso learning to swim, to more talking with Bjarne, to CSC training camp, and finally to Carlos Sastre talking about how many kids he’s going to have.

Now, all this jumping around and pace-changing might still have come off as bold, aggressive filmmaking had everything not been chained down with constant voiceover from Riis, camera work that wavers somewhere between impatient and claustrophobic, and tacky-looking narrative phrases that pop-up onto the screen. The viewer is taken to a great number of different and interesting locations but is never allowed to sample them outside the strangulating, overt control of director Gislason. We always have to look at everything too closely, or from obstructed angles, and though this could have been an intentional stylistic choice, I found it really irritating. Certainly, this difference in visual presentation alone makes any parallel to A Sunday in Hell (like the one WCP makes here) extremely tenuous; you might as well be comparing it to Breaking Away.

Aggravating these faults is a real lack of arc or story development. I’m aware that Overcoming is a documentary, but the aegis of reality film does not absolve a filmmaking team from creating a product that involves the viewer in its struggle. The film opens by talking about nine men working together as a team, but it never makes clear what exactly they are working for. Victory? Personal fulfillment? Survival? It’s up to the viewer to decipher, and Gislason has left us precious little in the way of clues. I’ll be charitable and assume he meant to imply that the team is a goal unto itself (though even that sounds ridiculous, as few of the movie’s scenes or sub-stories involve more than two riders at a time).

In terms of characters, I felt like I came out of Overcoming knowing less about the riders of Team CSC. Only Carlos Sastre and Ivan Basso get any real cinematic attention outside the epilogue, and despite attempts to make Basso the protagonist, battling heroically against the myriad of enemies (weather, mountains, media, Lance Armstrong) the Tour de France can provide, his director Riis simply dominates the film. Gislason cannot seem to go three minutes without cutting back to the bald Dane as he contemplates some quandary or other with the pessimistic reserve of a stereotypical norseman. It’s a shame, too, because in a more limited, string-pulling role, like say, Vito Corleone in The Godfather or Dr. Xavier in X2, Riis would excel. But his detachment and unflappability make him a dull center indeed.

Though the film is trying constantly for visceral poignance, its overproduction (overlapping pain-faces fading in and out over American Beauty knock-off piano riffs, constant digital zooms, washouts, and slow-motion that speeds up at irregular intervals) hamstrings it at every turn. Only in the epilogue, as legendary Italian Classics rider Michele Bartoli contemplates his immanent retirement, does the movie establish a natural enough rhythm to achieve a brief moment of emotional significance. Add to this maelstrom the worst English translation subtitles since “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” (some examples: “the yellow t-shirt” in reference to the Maillot Jaune, “already before” as a response to a question, and the recurring flubs: “to” for “too”, “biddance” for “bidons”,”mike” for “mic” etc.) and you’ve got a film that is as exhausting to watch as it is uncompelling to sit through.

The real disappointment strikes, though, when you realize how good this picture could have been. Watching the bonus disk drives home the fact that, before some seriously questionable editorial decisions turned it into 105 minutes of celluloid mediocrity, there was some seriously astounding footage here. Presented simply, without the frustrating alternation between introspection and bombast that plagues the feature film, the bonus featurettes (particularly “Carlife” and “Alpe d’Huez”) absolutely glow. The viewer is taken aback when the irrepressibly upbeat Jens Voigt shows flashes of real anger and sadness after German fans heckle him, and when Riis and Bobby Julich each reflexively blame the other for a freak crash that breaks Julich’s wrist. It’s the sort of spontaneous and subtle reaction that only documentary film can deliver, and its appearance is a stark contrast to the largely conjured emotionality of the theatrical feature.

I’m hoping that on a hard drive in a Danish basement somewhere, someone still has a complete collection of the hundreds of hours of raw digital video footage that this film was made from. Because, despite is glaring and infuriating flaws, Overcoming is only a level-headed production team away from becoming a film with real impact. Maybe in twenty years, another group of filmmakers will come along and take the visual presentation levels down a couple notches, cut back on the Bjarne content, wrap the scenes around a more developed narrative structure, give the viewer something to invest their emotions in, and then let the sport tell its own story. It’s the formula that turned a dusty April weekend into an undeniable classic; Lord only knows what it could do to the to the ’04 Tour de France and CSC’s run-up to it.

Final Thoughts: All that having been said, it’s not a bad movie, just not a great one. And what makes it annoying to watch on the couch makes it easier to sweat through on the trainer. Still, if I were given the choice, I’d borrow it from a friend instead of buying it.

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