The Last Rider is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

It's rare that I watch a documentary and find myself thinking "Bring on the Hollywood dramatization." Usually, such narrative features (Milk, The Walk, Grey Gardens) are at best utterly redundant, and at worst vastly inferior to the documentaries that inspired them (The Times of Harvey Milk, Man on Wire, Grey Gardens.)

But there are things Hollywood can do better than real life, and I have a feeling—based on watching Alex Holmes' new documentary The Last Rider—that the story of Greg LeMond might be one of them.

In 1985, LeMond became the first American cyclist to win the Tour de France. (In fact—as Lance Armstrong was stripped of his titles for using performance enhancing drugs—LeMond is still the only American winner.) In 1987, however, LeMond was nearly killed when his own brother-in-law accidentally shot him on a hunting trip. Dropped from his team, but supported by his wife Kathy, he spent two years recovering from that potentially career (and life) ending trauma before coming back to compete in the 1989 Tour. With dozens of shotgun pellets still lodged in his body, LeMond was uncertain whether he'd even be able to finish the grueling three-week race. (Just in case there's anyone as ignorant of the sport as I was, I won't spoil the outcome of that race, which is the exciting climax to which Holmes' film builds. But you can probably guess.)

Certainly, LeMond's inspiring story has all the elements to make a thrilling film: overcoming adversity, the triumph of the underdog, sinister betrayals, and—most engagingly—a genuinely touching love story. (Kathy LeMond emerges from The Last Rider as every bit the hero her husband is. Her recounting of going into premature labor at the same moment Greg was undergoing life-saving surgery is as harrowing as any moment in the races.) There are even compelling enemies. (LeMond is a very affable hero, but I was at times far more interested in his rival, the fascinatingly prickly French cyclist Laurent Fignon, who—in reality-TV parlance—gets the "villain edit" here.)

Critic Mark Kermode is fond of saying that the sign of a good documentary is if it can make you interested in a subject you didn't care about at all going in. Knowing absolutely nothing about cycling, I was fully engaged in LeMond's dramatic comeback story; to that extent, at least, The Last Rider is a good documentary. But the filmmaking itself is extremely pedestrian: it's present-day talking-head interviews—with Greg and Kathy LeMond, Spanish cyclist Pedro Delgado, and others—spliced with grainy archival videotape of the races themselves. It works, but it's not the most cinematic experience: it feels a bit more like watching a really long segment on Wide World of Sports. 

More disappointingly, too much personal and professional narrative goes untold. Greg and Kathy are both very likable, but neither is especially articulate about their lives: personal and family traumas get mentioned but go unexplored, and important pieces of the story get elided without explanation or elaboration. (For example, we know Greg recovered from his injuries, but we learn very little about what that long recovery process was like.) Similarly, for those of us who are not fluent in the nuances of the sport, The Last Rider makes little effort to explain its pleasures. We know when someone rode faster than someone else, but how did they do it? Why were they able to? What strategies did they have to use, what physical and emotional resources did they need to draw on? For any sports movie, those sorts of questions are the difference between really feeling the competition and just knowing the outcome.

You could say that's the difference between documentary and drama, but it is possible to have both. (For sports movies, I'd point to Asif Kapadia's brilliant Senna [2010], one of those documentaries so narratively thrilling it would shame any attempt at a Hollywood dramatization.) Here, the true facts of LeMond's Tour de France comeback are plenty exciting in their own right, but it's a story—and a sport—that could definitely benefit from a little creative artifice. Perhaps it's a character flaw, but I spent most of The Last Rider casting actors to play its leads in my head, scripting scenes that would flesh out its love story and rivalries, and imagining thrilling shots that would make me feel—not just understand—the excitement of the race.

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1 thought on “THE LAST RIDER (2022)”

  1. Completely agree on this one, Michael – I was more engaged watching "American Flyers" (guilty pleasure) when these two have lives that could have given us something approaching "Senna"…

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