On September 24th 1988, a Canadian sprinter called Ben Johnson won the 100m final in the Seoul Olympics, in the then astonishing time of 9.79 seconds. It was the culmination of a an intense rivalry, dating back to the preceding Olympics in Los Angeles, between himself and Carl Lewis: but he could only bask in the glory for 48 hours before being stripped of his gold medal (and world record) for failing a drugs test. But this was far from the end of the story. No less than five of the 8 finalists became entangled in subsequent years with proven allegations of drug use.
The race has been – only slightly hyperbolically – been described as “the dirtiest in history”; but what does become startlingly clear in 9.79*, a captivating documentary by Daniel Gordon, was that the moral ambiguity (at best) that accompanies drug use reached back much further than the track. The rivalry between Lewis and Johnson was good for business of sports, very good indeed. The first, hero of Los Angeles four years previously, was an all singing, all dancing American hero (unfortunately, he did do both), whilst Johnson was an upstart in every sense of the word, his physical presence and shaven head making him a shoo-in for the role of pantomime villain.
The pressures from outside were immense: director Gordon, through interviews with all the 8 finalists, draws out a comprehensively depressing narrative of the true cost of staying at the top. Perhaps the real surprise is the outrage and naivety of spectators when drug taking finally reveals itself (c.f. baseball and cycling in recent years), that and the extent to which athletes are prepared, or are pushed, into risking their health to stay on top of the game. Gordon also crafts the most subtle and sophisticated reveal that I’ve ever encountered in a documentary film. I won’t give it away, but pay attention when the scientific boffins start to outline the physical consequences of doping.
Staying with the pressures of remaining at the top: until relatively recently, the Nixon White House set the gold standard for political skulduggery, with break-ins, subterfuge and out-and-out deceit characterising Tricky Dicky’s desire to manipulate, ex-constitutionally, the reins of power. But amidst the compulsive (some might say paranoid) secrecy, a genuinely astonishing nugget of information to contemplate: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapman, three of Nixon’s closest lieutenants (Chief of Staff, Chief Domestic Adviser and Special Assistant to the President, respectively; all three were convicted for their roles in the Watergate cover-up) were compulsive documentarians, and recorded their lives in the White House for posterity on Super 8 home cinema cameras.
The footage, more than 500 reels of film recorded between 1969 and 1973, were confiscated by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, but promptly forgotten as attention was directed to the constitutional battle to secure the (separate, illegal) tapes of conversations in the Oval Office that eventually led to Nixon’s downfall.
Many years later, director Penny Lane discovered the reels and has married them to other rare footage in Our Nixon, an intimate account of life in the White House. It’s perhaps strange to think that an establishment so steeped in secrecy was so blasé about creating an enduring record of their activities. As Lane observes, “they filmed to have something to show their grandchildren. They filmed because they thought that Nixon’s presidency would change the world forever.” At least they were right about the last point.
9.79* (UK, 2012, 80 min, English, no subtitles)
Directed by Daniel Gordon
Screening times: 6.7 at 15:00, Cinematheque 4; 12.7 at 15:15, Cinematheque 4
Our Nixon (USA, 2013, 85 min, English, no subtitles)
Directed by Penny Lane
Screening times: 12.7 at 11:00, Cinematheque 4; 13.7 at 11:45, Cinematheque 4