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Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney hates liars. He hates when companies lie (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room); he hates when religions lie (Going Clear, Mea Maxima Culpa); he hates when authority figures lie (The Inventor, Client 9).
The Rosetta Stone for Gibney’s dogmatic resistance to mendacity is The Armstrong Lie. Gibney’s irritation arises not just from the general lies that Lance Armstrong told the world, but from the lies that Lance Armstrong told him during the making of the movie, yielding a documentary about the nature of deception and self-deception.
Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker
Director: Alex Gibney
Gibney’s new two-part Apple TV+ docuseries Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker is a complementary text to The Armstrong Lie. It’s about a revered sports icon whose falsehoods eventually led to personal disgrace. It’s structured around two extensive interviews conducted at different points in the subject’s prevarication — once in delusion and once when facing a reckoning.
But Boris Becker isn’t Lance Armstrong and his lies aren’t Lance Armstrong’s lies. Generally, Gibney seems to recognize the distinction, and he uses Becker as a locus for exploring how every athlete, to some degree, derives strength from the lies they tell themselves.
At the same time, in trying to understand the nature of Becker as an athlete and Becker as a liar, Gibney allows his documentary to meander. This project will struggle to hold the attention of anybody who isn’t a devotee of a specific era of tennis. Even as a tennis fan and somebody who grew up admiring Becker in particular, I found myself frequently pondering how many interesting ideas Gibney has in Boom! Boom! and how poorly they sometimes coalesce.
Becker, of course, first won Wimbledon in 1985 at the age of 17, and he weathered various ups and downs to become one of the dominant figures in men’s tennis. A star worldwide, Becker was even bigger in his native Germany, but his personal roller coaster included high-profile marriages and divorces, a tabloid-ready paternity scandal and a series of financial catastrophes culminating, in 2022, in a multi-year prison sentence.
One key interview with Becker was performed in 2019, at the very beginning of this latest round of allegations, and one in 2022, days before his sentencing. In the first, he looks … like Boris Becker, eternally youthful and putting on a visage of optimism (optimism being, often, another form of lie). In the second, it’s like he’s aged 30 years; the defense shield of his own confidence is gone.
It is a documentary of attempted, but not always fulfilled, structuring. Gibney declares early on that telling Becker’s story chronologically isn’t helpful, but mostly that’s what he’s done. The first segment — “Triumph,” at 98 minutes — traces Becker’s rise, with little mini-falls, from precocious kid to the top tennis player in the world. The documentary is filled with key figures from Becker’s life, including his first wife Barbara; key figures from his tennis journey, including mustachioed manager Ion Tiriac and the late Nick Bollettieri; and various general tennis figures, some Becker’s heroes (Bjorn Borg in particular), some his peers and rivals (John McEnroe, Mats Wilander), and some the successors to his legacy (Michael Stich, Novak Djokovic).
It’s easy to get invested in “Triumph” and to revel in the stories that Becker and his contemporaries tell, accompanied by terrific archival footage of Becker’s full journey. It’s still easy to marvel at his power and his reckless disregard for his own self-interest, diving around courts of every surface. That recklessness and his transition from a player who ruled with physicality to a player who dominated with his mind set up a symbolic journey for Gibney to track in the second part — “Disaster,” 112 minutes — when recklessness and self-delusion prove to be his undoing, albeit in pecuniary ways that prove rather uncinematic.
But how is that different from any athlete who went from making millions to losing millions post-retirement? Why does Gibney — narrator in addition to inquisitor here — need to repeatedly pause Becker’s interviews to point out inconsistencies in his stories, failing to distinguish between general bluster and nefarious deception? Again, Boris Becker isn’t Lance Armstrong, but does parsing that distinction justify nearly four hours of running time? Gibney tries hard but can’t fully pull it off.
The effort can be seen in the project’s multiple half-explored motifs. The use of spaghetti western title cards and Ennio Morricone musical stings is an effective way to look at tennis matches as dusty duels — especially when they’re playing on the red clay of Roland Garros — but Becker was almost the opposite of a Man with No Name. Plus the documentary already has another musical motif in John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” which is used countless times despite having no real connection to Becker’s nickname.
And what of the CG reenactments of a tennis ball being thrown into the air on a serve? I get that it creates a virtual eclipse, showing how, for an athlete, sport can eclipse the real world. But does any documentary need both that and a recurring candle — because Becker, metaphorically, liked to run his finger through the flame — at the same time?
Gibney uses some of his documentaries as a way of venting spleen and some as a means of coming to terms with his own uncertainties. Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker is in that second mode, but while there’s much to enjoy here, the formal uncertainty nags.
Production Companies: Apple TV
Director: Alex Gibney
Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney, Erin Edeiken, George Chignell
Executive Producers: Julian Bird
Editor: Micheal J. Palmer
Composer: Peter Nashel, Eric Hachikian
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