'Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree's Story': Edinburgh Review

Courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival
Intimate portrait of a true sporting eccentric engages a genial gear.

David Street's documentary on the record-breaking bicycle champion world-premiered at the U.K.'s oldest film festival.

The arduous search for stability — both physical and mental — is the real subject of David Street's unassumingly inspirational Scottish documentary Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree's Story, it follows the veteran inventor-cum-cycling-champ as he seeks to break new records in his late 40s, traveling to the eponymous Nevada location for the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge.

A compelling celebration of an unorthodox, complex and troubled character, it exerts obvious appeal for sports-themed festivals and channels (Street's extensive background lies almost exclusively in television). But, dealing sensitively with its bipolar protagonist's mental-health travails, the film is also sufficiently accessible to warrant consideration from more general documentary-oriented outlets.

Winner of the individual pursuit world title in 1993 and 1995 with minimal financial support, and riding a bike ('Old Faithful') he cobbled together himself, Obree chronicled his exploits in an autobiography, The Flying Scotsman. The book was then adapted for the big screen in 2006, with TV show Elementary's Sherlock Jonny Lee Miller starring as Obree in the low-budget picture nabbing a small U.S. release via MGM in May 2007.

Battle Mountain picks up the tale a couple of decades after Obree's heyday, during which time he's been diagnosed as severely bipolar, has attempted suicide and broken up with his wife. Now, with the help of his teenage sons, Obree sets his restless, ingenious mind to constructing a new conveyance suitable for Nevada's competition ("if it's humanly, scientifically possible, let's be doing it.") He attacks the problem mainly in his own somewhat cramped kitchen, at one point cannibalizing a sauce-pan to extract pieces of curved stainless steel to use as arm-rests — recalling how 'Old Faithful' famously incorporated bits of an old washing-machine.

A natural-born engineer with a flair for hands-on problem-solving, Obree stands in the astonishing lineage of Scots inventors like James Watt (steam engine), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) and John Logie Baird (television), not to mention Dumfriesshire blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan and Kilmarnock cartwright Thomas McCall, both traditionally cited among the forefathers of the modern bicycle. The contraption — dubbed "The Beastie" by Scotland's current cycle-deity Sir Chris Hoy — which Obree eventually devises after laborious trial-and-error experimentations looks more like an elongated plastic tube than any regular velocipede, as lying prone within a sleekly aerodynamic casing provides optimum forward thrust.

There are quite a few wobbles along the way — literally so, when early tests on windy, rainswept Scottish airport runways underline the extreme difficulty of maintaining equilibrium at any speed, let alone the 50mph+ rates required to score a respectable showing in gusty Nevada. Such against-all-odds stories in the fictional realm invariably end in unlikely, crowd-pleasing triumph, of course, but with documentaries the outcome is generally much harder to predict. That adds considerably to the suspense and ultimate effectiveness of Battle Mountain, whose straightforward, no-nonsense approach chimes with Obree's infectiously can-do energy (and which is at odds with the lachrymose ballad accompanying the end-credits).

Although at times a touch over-reliant on Alun Woodward's score — just as the ex-champ spurns convention, the film tends to embrace it — writer/director Street, working with two editors, finds a workable equilibrium between Obree's present, sometimes desperate quest ("you must break that record for emotional survival... I needed to win even if I was gonna die") and his previous rollercoaster experiences.

He delivers a well-paced, informative and illuminating glimpse into the thought-processes of this "maverick genius with the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old kid," one whose obsessional drives take him — for good and ill — to places that "satisfied, contended people" could never dream of reaching.

Production companies: Journey Pictures
Director / Screenwriter / Producer / Cinematographer: David Street
Editors: Berny McGurk, Colin Monie
Composer: Alun Woodward
Sales: Journey, Glasgow
No Rating, 100 minutes

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