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Dispatches : Media

Does the New 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Get Survival Right?

Full disclosure: Last spring, I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy in one go (okay, I listened to the unabridged audio version) while passing the long hours slogging to Everest Base Camp. I was intrigued by the series in part because it was the popular book everyone seemed to be talking about. But I was also crushing on the female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, because she was kind of the ultimate outdoor babe, a cross between Lara Croft and Becky Thatcher, who earned bonus points for being a bow hunter.

In the new film, Catching Fire, the second of the books to be adapted to film, and which opens nationwide today, we find Katniss, (Jennifer Lawrence), living comfortably in the Victors’ Village alongside Peeta Mellark. The two—having won the previous year’s Hunger Games, a kind of dystopian Survivor in which contestants use primitive weapons to kill each other on live television—are expecting the well-fed life of peace and comfort that’s the prize of victory. Instead, the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is worried that the two pose an existential threat to the imperial Capital of Panem by giving hope to the 12 subjugated Districts that are responsible for producing the raw material for their conquerors’ opulent lifestyles. So back into the arena the victors must go for some more Lord of the Flies–style bloodletting.

As with the first movie, success in the arena relies on a mix of fighting and survival skill. Katniss’s prowess with a bow is legendary—so much so that archery ranges across the country are seeing a serious uptick in young female participation. (At the Archery Shoppe in Albuquerque, where I sometimes shoot, it seems like there are always a handful of 14-year-old girls on the line shoulder to shoulder with goateed guys in camo.) In Catching Fire, Katniss has upgraded from her homemade hardwood bow to an Olympic-style carbon-fiber recurve model. Unfortunately, no actual Olympian—even the South Korean women, who are unbeatable in competition—comes close to her skill. Katniss never picks up her arrows, and never runs out. She hits moving targets at all distances and shoots faster than a Wayne LaPierre wet dream. Her skill comes from shooting small game and turkeys back home in District 12, which looks a lot like mid-Atlantic coal country.

{%{"quote":"To make fresh water, Katniss and her allies rely on a spile. That’s the metal tree tap that should be familiar to any Vermonter."}%}

And she’s a survivor, though less so in Catching Fire than in the first Hunger Games movie, in which Katniss builds a mountain lair worthy of Eric Rudolph. Save for a training session in which Katniss expertly instructs two allies from District 3 on their hand-drill fire making technique—you’ve got to move your hands down the spindle as you turn to produce enough friction—the woodsmanship in installment seems a bit hokey. To make fresh water, Katniss and her allies rely on a spile. That’s the metal tree tap that should be familiar to any Vermonter; pound the little spigot into a tree and out comes the sap. Typically a spile works only when sap is flowing freely during the late fall and early spring when temps are below freezing at night and warmer during the day. The jungle trees in Catching Fire quickly produced a stream of water more like a garden hose.

But machine-gun archery and silly survival tactics have long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy. We won’t even get into the physics of force fields and hovercraft. Chances are you’re not in the theater because Bear Grylls’s show got cancelled. More likely, you’ll watch this one because you loved the books, even if you claim that it’s just your kids who are into them.

While the second installment of the trilogy is bigger and flashier than the first movie, which had the same hard-scrabble indie vibe that made Jennifer Lawrence a star in Winter’s Bone, director Francis Lawrence stayed utterly true to the book for two-and-a-half hours. As middle movies in a series go, Catching fire is more Breaking Dawn than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s still entertaining. There’s plenty of eye candy here, from the special effects to the actors, but for those of us who wax too critical whenever we see a big budget film blow details—like every Hollywood climbing movie that’s ever been made—it’s refreshing when directors like Francis Lawrence invest the effort to get it right.

Catching Fire may be less about overcoming the oppressive regime than about whether Katniss ends up with Peeta or her childhood sweetheart-cum-coal miner Gale. Fans of the books will love it. And they may even tolerate the fact that our benevolent Hollywood overlords are squeezing not one but two movies out of Mockingjay, the final book in the series.

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The Making of “The Armstrong Lie”

As Daniel Coyle, co-author of The Secret Race, has pointed out, Lance Armstrong’s story is not new. It’s an archetypal tragedy fueled by greed and hubris.

The Armstrong Lie, the new documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) isn’t entirely new either. The narrator (Gibney himself), originally enlisted to document Armstrong’s comeback in 2009, wound up making a film about the man’s dramatic rise and fall. Gibney came to understand that Armstrong's invitation into his inner circle was a calculated move. Who better to bolster the power of his story, to help weave a more elaborate cloak over the truth, than a director with a reputation for exposing abuses of power?

The film's two producers, Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, already called Armstrong a friend. But just as the team finished its original comeback documentary, The Road Back, a string of admissions followed by a 202-page USADA report hit the news. The filmmakers shelved their first movie. They needed just one thing to happen in order to make a new film: Armstrong to play along.

You shelved your first movie, The Road Back, after Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, and others made allegations against Lance. But then Armstrong contacted you. Talk about that moment.
FRANK MARSHALL: He asked Matt and I to come down to Austin during the Livestrong Fundraiser, Ride for the Roses, last October.

MATT TOLMACH: It was surreal. The USADA report had come out and people were bailing from the Lance train. Frank and I had long ago drunken the Kool Aid, so we were somewhere in the middle. I was a little skeptical; Frank was wanting very much to believe that there was no substance to this.

And we were in Austin. Lance said, “Come into my office, I want to talk about doping, and I want to come forward, and I want to maybe say something in the movie.” And he came clean.

We were gobsmacked. This came from the mouth of a guy who had been so vehemently denying it for so long. It was just an insane moment in life, to be in the same room with this guy as he comes clean. It was a lot to process. As filmmakers, we were incredibly excited because it meant a whole new life and angle for our movie. But as people who knew him for a long time? It was a stunning and shocking moment.

Did you ask many questions?
MARSHALL: I mostly listened because it was such a stunning revelation. We asked him if he would be prepared to talk to Alex again because there was no movie unless we had a new interview with him. He agreed, and then Matt and I got on a plane the next morning so we could meet with Alex. Then we met with Sony Classics. A new movie evolved.

Did you set up any guiding principles?
GIBNEY:
At this point, what you have to understand is that the first film was primarily a comeback film. The Road Back contained within it the idea of the road into the past, a kind of reckoning with past accusations or allegations of doping. Slowly, those failed accusations and allegations became very real.

It became a different kind of investigation, not into whether it happened, but how it happened, and how the lie obscured the reality of what had happened. And so a different kind of move had to be made.

We had on film the anatomy of a lie. It was like that moment in Blow Up when David Hemmings suddenly realizes he has something in the lens of his camera that he didn’t understand. And so now we’re going back and doing a different kind of an investigation, moving back and forth in time. Although I was kind of reluctant to put myself in the movie, we all agreed to make my own story part of the story—to really convey the emotional depth of what it's like to believe and then to have a lie revealed.

Alex, what was the biggest challenge in terms of putting yourself in the story?
GIBNEY: Well, I think the biggest challenge was being honest. I had become a fan. I had to really reckon with my own role in the story, as having been, in effect, part of the cover up.

Why do you think Armstrong gave you full access to document the comeback in the first place?
GIBNEY: I think it was hubris. I think it was a sense that he had this act wired, that he had done it before, and he was going to do it again. Everybody could watch, and they could look under the bed, and wherever they wanted, and they could talk to whomever they wanted, but he had this down. It didn’t matter if they gave us access, because we wouldn’t be able to see anything.

In the film I ask him: “Weren’t you concerned that people were going to raise questions about doping when you came back in 2009?” And he said without missing a beat, “Of course.” Not, “Yes.” So, there was an expectation that he could give us lots of access and it wouldn’t make any difference.

TOLMACH: Lance did let Alex do this. There’s part of me thinks it was 99 percent hubris. At the same time, there’s something kind of nuts about doing that with someone like Alex who emerges with the truth. Maybe he knew subconsciously that couldn’t hold on to this thing anymore, I don’t know. I’m always amazed that he did let Alex in.

Were there moments when you felt that Armstrong was trying to control your story?
GIBNEY: He is a storyteller, at least when it comes to his own story and his own myth. It’s as if he wrote the script for himself in the morning and then lived it in the afternoon.

There was one day where he lost very badly to rival Alberto Contador. We were hanging out in his hotel room filming him. And he looked me in the eye and he said, “I’m sorry. I fucked up your documentary.” I think there was an aspect of bluster to it, but I think there was something very true about it. It was as if he had written the screenplay, but it hadn’t come out the way he wanted. He had a narrative for himself that he believed in, and a lot of others believed in.

That was the thing, he had created a story that was so big, and so fantastical, and he even called it a miracle at one point. On the 2005 podium, he said, “I’m sorry for those of you who don’t believe in miracles.” When you have a guy who’s scripting miracles, he’s going to try pretty hard to control that story.

TOLMACH: There’s an amazing moment in the movie that also speaks to how strange it all was. The moment I showed up at the Tour that year, he'd had a bad day. I went up to him and said, “Hey dude, how’s it going?” He gave me a hug, and he whispered to me, “What’s going to happen with the documentary if I don’t win?” He was so acutely aware that we were telling a story about him. And so he was trying to be the storyteller and the main character. 

GIBNEY: This guy had come to realize that the enormity of his story was so powerful, so financially and emotionally beneficial—both to him and to many others. I think he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to keep delivering that lie, over and over again. 

Where did his ability to craft a story come from?
TOLMACH: 
I think that’s what’s the movie about. He was this angry, fatherless kid who came out on a tear, and then suffered an enormous blow [cancer] and came back to the sport in spectacular fashion. And there’s a whole sequence about the power of that revelation to him and everybody else. That’s where it all began. And I think the movie kind of examines why he was so ripe for playing the lead in this story about the creation of a myth.

GIBNEY: Just like he learned to do everything on the bike, he learned how to be a great storyteller because he understood that he was at the center of an extraordinarily powerful story. He learned on the job. I don’t think it was innate. I think as Matt says, it was nature, not nurture.

What’s the ultimate motivation driving that?
GIBNEY: I think it just evolved. I think at some point, he understood that the story was enormously profitable, and not just for him. It was profitable for the sponsors, and the sport. And frankly, it was also very powerful to millions of cancer survivors all over the world. We say in the film, it’s not a story about doping, it’s a story about power. 

Did power motivate him more than money?
GIBNEY: I’m not sure. I think he sees the world in very binary terms. You either win—and if you win, you win all out. Or you lose. That’s it. Win or lose. End of story.

Why were there no interviews with his mom, or his ex-wife, or anyone from his family?
GIBNEY: I tried to keep it to the team, to keep it professional. It really became an investigation about his professional life, and not his personal life.

There's a moment in the film when Armstrong, Bruyneel, and Stapleton are talking about the possibility of Armstrong not being invited to compete in the 2009 Tour. What did you think about that moment after you learned that Lance had been doping?
GIBNEY: That’s just an unbelievable scene in retrospect, but at the time it was just part of the constant bravado and clamor about doping accusations. You know: How dare they? Which was a constant refrain. But they all knew he was doping. Johann doesn’t say, “He didn’t dope.” He says, “He wasn’t busted. He wasn’t busted.”

GIBNEY: And so it has a whole different subtext.

Can you summarize your relationship to Armstrong? How much did you correspond before the making of this movie?
MARSHALL: I met Lance before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 through his agent Bill Stapleton; we were both on the Olympic committee. Bill came to me when Lance wrote his book, after the Olympics, and said, “We think this could be a movie." 

TOLMACH: And we spent a lot of time with him. We went to every Tour. We rode with him. Lance and I would go out and just hammer the hills, and Frank would be in the car behind us taking pictures. We spent a lot of time with him developing a narrative, so we knew him very well.

Matt and Frank,  how important was it to have Gibney as the director? 
MARSHALL: We selected him to do the first version of this film because as a producer, I like to go with the best. He’s a fantastic documentarian, he’s won an Academy Award, he’s done great documentaries, and he's also a big sports fan. But when we met with him, he admitted he didn’t know anything about cycling, which was actually great because we wanted the film to reach a broader audience.

He was also really fascinated by Lance’s will. Really, he was interested in why Lance was making a comeback. I was interested in that too, and so it made sense to have him as our guy. 

TOLMACH: I think the most important thing to understand is that Frank and I were insiders in the world of Lance. Even in the previous version of the movie we really wanted to get under the skin of this guy and try to understand him. We needed someone who approached his subjects more forensically and analytically then we would. Alex is the best in the world in that.

Alex’s first cut of the movie was brilliant, and was quite biting in its own way. But once everything became clear a year ago, the journalist in him just lit up. He can find sources that no one else can find and weave a narrative that breaks through a very complicated story. It all ended up being really perfect casting.

Was there ever a moment when you butted heads with Alex?
TOLMACH: Absolutely. There was one evening when we were in the cutting room in Columbia Pictures and we were, in the most productive way, having a very heated debate about some of the stuff Alex was putting in about doping.

MARSHALL: It was about balance.

TOLMACH: At that point we tended to be the counterbalance to anything that had to do with doping. Long before all of this stuff came out, Alex was hot on the trail on all kinds of noise and allegations that were already out there. He had already interviewed Frankie Andreu and Michele Ferrari and people who nobody was talking to back then. 

MARSHALL: We thought, in some instances, the allegations were not relevant to the story we were telling—the incredible story that happened on the mountain in the battle between Contador and Lance. We wanted to err on the side of the exciting race, and also have sort of the smoke that was swirling around. Again, it was about balance.

What was the lesson in making this movie?
TOLMACH: I found the process to be so eye opening, and oddly, the idea that the truth is a ever-moving target is actually a gift when you’re making a documentary. You’re given a story that is ever changing. When you make a documentary, you’re very nimble, you’re not locked into a strip, you can roll with events as they happen. It certainly forced me to take a broader view of things, things that you believe in and things that you are not necessarily willing to question because it might be uncomfortable to go against the grain. I think Alex showed us the importance of always looking for the whole truth, and keeping our eyes wide open at all times and not getting lost in the narrative. It's been an amazing ride.

MARSHALL: I agree. Unfortunately, the desire to win at all costs has been woven into our culture. I look at things a little more carefully. I’m glad we hung in there to discover the real truth. I mean, Lance was a hero to me. I’m a bit more cynical now. I was probably naïve, probably too idealistic. But winning at all costs is not a good ethic to have; it causes a lot of damage.

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Alex Honnold Isn't Afraid of Skyscrapers

In October of 2012, Alex Honnold, 28, and filmmaker Peter Mortimer, 39, were talking about making a new kind of climbing film: one that featured Honnold scaling an immense skyscraper. "We thought, Wouldn't that be a rad next thing to do," recalls Mortimer, a founder of the production company Sender Films, "soloing a big building?" Then Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner leaped from the edge of space in a Red Bull spacesuit on live television, and the pair got a better idea. They started discreetly calling networks with a bold plan: Honnold wanted to free-solo—climb without ropes—the exterior of one of the world's great skyscrapers on live TV. The National Geographic Channel bit, and in July, the station announced that Honnold would scale what turned out to be the 1,667-foot Taipei 101, in Taiwan. The climb, originally scheduled for November, was delayed, so the team could shore up the details, and is now set to take place in 2014.

The plan is to follow a routine that Honnold and Mortimer honed in Yosemite National Park: Honnold will start from the ground with little more than his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. Meanwhile, Mortimer, Sender cofounder Nick Rosen, and a team of top cameramen and riggers from the climbing world will track his progress while ascending ropes using mechanical jumars. All of which they hope will translate into a ratings bonanza. "You say it in a sentence on the elevator and someone gets it," says Mortimer.

Honnold is the biggest name among a group of adventure athletes engaging in high-risk live action-sports spectacles that seem pulled from the Evel Knievel playbook. First came Baumgartner's Stratos leap. Then, last June, highwire walker Nik Wallenda crossed a quarter-mile cable strung over the Little Colorado River while 13 million people tuned in on the Discovery Channel, setting a 13-year ratings high. In September, BASE jumper Miles Daisher announced that he'd try to complete Knievel's failed motorcycle jump over the Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, "Sketchy" Andy Lewis—the slackliner who made his name performing in a toga during Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl halftime show—announced plans to walk a 360-foot line strung between two towers of Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay resort.

In many ways, these projects represent a return to an old form of entertainment. "This idea of doing spectacular stunts goes back to the age of the circus," says Syracuse University communications professor Robert Thompson. "And it's pretty consistent with the needs of contemporary digital media." In an era of diminished ratings and fractured attention spans, what could be more compelling than an athletic feat accentuated by the very real prospect of televised tragedy? "When you get someone who's really pushing the absolute limits of human capability, that taps into something very aspirational in our viewers," says Discovery executive producer Howard Schwartz, who was behind the Wallenda walk. "And, to be completely frank, there's will-he-or-won't-he-make-it appeal."

No one's better suited to this sort of high-profile undertaking than Honnold, a goofy, doe-eyed kid who burst onto the climbing scene in 2008 by free-soloing Yosemite's iconic Half Dome. He later cracked the mainstream when Citibank featured him in a commercial shot near Moab, Utah, and 60 Minutes ran a special on him using footage from Sender Films. "He's bigger than climbing," says Mortimer. "He's doing things that won't get done again for a generation, if ever. If you put all of our business into two boxes, and one was Alex Honnold and the other was everything else, Alex is the biggest box."

For his part, Honnold is typically self-effacing about the forthcoming climb—"It's a lucky coincidence that what I enjoy doing happens to be the most photogenic," he says. But he's well aware that Taipei could represent his international coming-out party. Honnold won't discuss specific figures, but he acknowledges that he'll be paid "vastly more than anything I've encountered in the climbing world" for the project.

Once Honnold and Mortimer sold the idea to National Geographic, they had to negotiate the tricky process of convincing a building owner to host the event. They landed first on the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, which Honnold examined closely last year. "Just the scout is a life-list experience, something to tell your grandkids about," he says. "You're rappelling off the edge of the biggest building in the world." Ultimately, though, he and Mortimer settled on the world's second-tallest skyscraper, the Taipei 101. "The Burj was just too hardcore for me," says Honnold. "It's the El Capitan of buildings."

At first the Sender crew were extremely secretive about their Taiwanese target, not wanting to attract attention. To preserve the surprise, Honnold scouted the moves of his upcoming climb at dawn. "You have to actually touch everything, because you're not sure what the construction is like the whole way—whether there's an insurmountable eight-foot blank spot 1,500 feet up the building," he says.

Honnold maintains that the climb itself isn't that demanding, and that the most perilous eventuality would be a piece of architecture breaking off. As with Wallenda's Colorado River highwire walk, the broadcast will happen on a ten-second delay, which will give producers time to cut away should something go wrong. (Many of the best free soloists, including Dan Osman, Derek Hersey, and Michael Reardon, have died in climbing accidents.) And while the organizers have tried to get Honnold to employ safety devices ranging from parachutes to crash pads, the climber has managed to convince them that he has things under control.

"You don't go forward on a project like this if there's a 15 percent chance you're not going to make it," he says. "There's a 100 percent chance I'm going to make it." Or maybe he won't. You'll just have to watch.

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One Mean Motherfracker

Steingraber is hardly a newcomer to the environmental scene: people have been comparing the former biology professor to Rachel Carson since 1997, when she published Living Downstream. The book examines how illness is linked to pollution, and it grew out of Steingraber's experiences battling a form of bladder cancer that may have been caused by industrial runoff.

But over the past three years, Steingraber, 54, has emerged as one of the country's top experts on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And here's the really surprising thing: at a time when everyone from big green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council to President Obama is touting America's newfound natural-gas glut as a bridge to energy independence, Steingraber has prevailed in her efforts to keep the process out of her home state.

In 2011, she received a $100,000 Heinz Award for her human-rights approach to the environmental crisis. At the time, it appeared that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was moments away from lifting a moratorium on fracking, so Steingraber used her prize money to help start the nonprofit New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition that includes thousands of members, from farmers to mothers to actor Mark Ruffalo. In 2012, she starred in the antifracking film Dear Governor Cuomo, which raised pressure on the state government. In March, she was jailed for blocking the entrance to a gas compressor station. A month later she published Raising Elijah, about how environmental issues like gas development will affect future generations. Meanwhile, the push to frack New York remains stalled. Cuomo has yet to lift the moratorium, and companies like Chesapeake Energy have started pulling out of the state.

There may be bigger names in the fracking debate—Josh Fox and Ruffalo come to mind—but none of them are as uncompromising or informed. "The data is showing us that we're killing our planet and killing our children," she says. "And scientists have a moral position to make sure that the data makes a difference."

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Lucy Walker Will Change Winter Sports

The list of recent documentaries that have fundamentally altered public attitudes about an important issue is short: The Cove, Super Size Me, Chasing Ice. Add to it Walker's The Crash Reel, which opens in theaters across the country this month. The film, a feature about snowboarder Kevin Pearce's recovery from a traumatic brain injury, makes an unassailable case that action sports are as dangerous as the NFL—and promises to change the way we see the X Games, super-pipes, and the very concept of big air.

"It's like we were breaking a story," says Walker. "There were a lot of things that we realized nobody had talked about before." Among them: an almost willful ignorance about the symptoms of head injuries and their prevalence in the action-sports community, the woeful lack of health insurance among athletes, and the complicity of the industry in pushing people like Pearce to risky heights.

The Crash Reel introduces us to Pearce when he's a fun-loving star primed to rival Shaun White as the world's greatest snowboarder. Then he suffers a brain injury on a Park City, Utah, halfpipe while training for the Vancouver Olympics, and everything about him, from his mental capacity to his disposition, changes. Walker spares us nothing, showing the accident over and over, going inside Pearce's Vermont home as his family helps him recover, and following him as he attempts to snowboard again. (His agent, Lowell Taub, gives Pearce detailed instructions on what to wear during his ceremonial return: "Nike gets a three-inch sticker on your helmet.") Walker also tackles the death of freeskier Sarah Burke, whose family faced a six-figure medical bill after she hit her head on the same Park City halfpipe where Pearce fell. The effect is brutal, which is the point.

"How come action-sports athletes aren't insured?" Walker asks. "I mean, how is that possible?"

Most important, Walker turns the clichéd sports comeback story on its head, making a convincing case that the most heroic thing you can do after a serious brain injury isn't to return to competition. Rather, it's to be selfless enough to walk away for the sake of your family.

Since finding this story, Walker has taken an active role in the issue of brain injuries, starting a nonprofit campaign called Love Your Brain together with the Pearce Family. (She also turned us on to the issue and helped spark our investigative report "After the Crash," which appears on page 68.) Walker has been nominated for two Oscars for her previous work (Waste Land and "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom"). If there's any justice in Hollywood, she'll be thanking the Pearce family from the podium in March.

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