Donald Brittain’s singular talent as a documentarian allow his films at once to convey and probe the mythology of history. With The Champions, an incisive three-part study of the careers and cultural significance of René Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau, postwar Canada’s most prominent political figures, Brittain plays with the friction between fact and myth.
Part I: Unlikely Warriors chronicles Lévesque’s and Trudeau’s early years, from university in the early fifties through to 1967, the year Lévesque left the Liberal party and Trudeau became the federal minister of justice. The film is marked by feelings of fate and dynamism and smartly contrasts the men’s similarities (both were from wealthy families and were trained in Jesuit schools) with their differences (Trudeau’s detached intellectual and philosophical perspective versus Lévesque’s emotionally driven journalistic approach). Upon meeting at a CBC cafeteria in Montreal, Lévesque kicked off the relationship by exclaiming, "If you’re a goddamned intellectual, I don’t want to talk to you," a sentiment that set the tone for their entire political relationship.
Using photos, newsreel footage and interviews with friends and colleagues, The Champions provides a background to the titanic struggle between these two men for the hearts and minds of Canadians and Quebecers. Most of the footage has been seen elsewhere, but Brittain’s genius is to fit the pieces together in mythic fashion, rife with stirring drama and compelling characters, thus making sense of it all as a great passion play. The Champions won four Canadian Film Awards, including Feature Documentary (Brittain, Janet Leissner) and Non-Dramatic Script (Brittain).
Parts I and II of The Champions were released as one feature length film, 113 minutes in length, in 1978.
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