(Tómas Gislason, Denmark, 2005)


Sports movies, musicals and war films often tend to blur together – especially when they are about a team pulling together, under the guidance of a charismatic or tyrannical leader, to achieve an enormously difficult task. The model of the war film was certainly not lost on Danish director Tómas Gislason, who quickly discovered, while shooting his Tour de France documentary Overcoming, that his real-life material resembled Kelly’s Heroes (1970).


Bjarne Riis is the softly spoken but fiercely determined leader of the Danish-owned bicycling team, CSC. He believes in rigorous training (including a “24 hour survival course”), and insists on total control of his riders when they are in the midst of the big event. There is no room for egos, tantrums, rebels or improvised, individual initiative.


This thoroughly absorbing sports documentary is unique in its genre, because it eschews a familiar sort of sensationalism. There is very little conflict, scandal or misbehaviour in Riis’s ranks. A reference to drug taking is briskly dispensed with. Women – even the wives and daughters of the riders – are almost never glimpsed anywhere near the team. There are no parties, no binges of any kind.


Even more remarkably, there seem to be very few arguments between the CSC members. In fact, these guys present an model of mutual support, compassion and understanding that one rarely sees in cinema – and even less in real life.  Among the riders are Ivan Basso, Jens Voigt and Carlos Sastre.


The obstacle in this drama is not a villainous coach or rider on another team, but the ever-present possibility of physical injury. This is the limit against which these men constantly push. And we see that, no matter how meticulous Riis’ preparation and planning, chance can always intervene, both disastrously and miraculously.


As a movie, Overcoming is a high-energy collage pasting together every scrap of footage that could be wrangled – from amateur video shots to hyper-professional, on-the-track coverage. Fans of Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions (2003) will be intrigued to learn that the subject of that film, avant-garde director and poet Jørgen Leth (about whom Gislason has made an award-winning documentary), served as a special consultant here – for he, too, has dabbled in the sports-essay-doco genre.

© Adrian Martin January 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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