Directed by: Lucy Walker.
The Crash Reel is a different kind of sports documentary, that tells the type of sports story we do not often see in the movies. Movies prefer inspirational sports stories – stories about athletes who defy odds, come back from adversity, or overcome injuries on their way to glory. The Crash Reel is about Kevin Pearce – who heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics was a medal hopeful in Half Pipe Snowboarding – perhaps the only one who could upset the heavily favored Shaun White. But on New Year’s Eve 2009 all that changed – during a training run in Park City Utah, Kevin tried out a new trick – and landed, badly – the full force of the fall was absorbed by his head. He was knocked unconscious, and it was touch and go for a while if he would even live through his injury – but eventually he does wake up. His doctors tell him he has had a traumatic brain injury – and he should never snowboard again. His family doesn’t want him to put himself in needless danger – once you’ve had one brain injury; it’s easier to get a second. But Kevin is determined to make a comeback.
In most sports movies, we would be cheering for Kevin to get back out there and snowboard. How many times have we seen a film when a group of naysayers try and talk the hero out of going after his dream, and he ignores them – and because he does, he ends up champion. The Crash Reel is different, because in this film you root against Kevin getting back on his snowboard. The film makes it clear just how dangerous the sport has become – and how it’s even more dangerous for Kevin. One fall, and he could kill himself. Why would he want to do that?
The sport of snowboarding has encouraged athletes to push themselves harder and harder. When it started, the half pipe was 6-8 high, and now it’s well over 20 feet. Combine the height of the wall with the height of the jumps, and you’re basically falling 40 feet if you mess up. From those heights, a helmet isn’t going to do you much good. But the additional height adds excitement to the sport – excitement draws in more fans, which draws in more money. And athletes being as competitive as they are, they want to do the bigger wall – and once they perfect one jump, they need to perfect something bigger and better – which is also more dangerous. The athletes take the chance of serious injury or death because they want to do it, they want to win and also because they don’t think that they’ll be the one who falls and hurts themselves – that’s something that happens to other people, not them. You can see this in the interviews with Kevin’s friends and teammates, who seemingly say differing versions of “What happened to Kevin was horrible, but…” throughout the movie.
Snowboarding is not alone in their disregard for their athlete’s safety of course. Every sport does it to one degree or another – the NFL just had to pay out $750 million to former players who suffered serious head injuries during their careers – some former NHL players just filed a similar lawsuit. Like those sports, a certain degree of risk is pretty much essential to snowboarding – you cannot take jumps out of the sport, just like you cannot take body checks out of hockey, or violence out of football. But what degree of responsibility does the sport have to protect their athletes – even if they are only protecting them for themselves? This is the question that hangs over much of The Crash Reel.
What is amazing about the film is that director Lucy Walker is able to explore all of this, without making the film sound like a sermon. She doesn’t moralize or scold, she simply lets Kevin’s story play out as naturally as possible. It is a fascinating story in part because of Kevin’s stubborn refusal to listen to anyone about how he needs to give up his dreams of returning to the sport he loves – even as years go by and he’s no closer to being able to compete. It’s also fascinating because of Kevin’s family – who love and support him, but do not want to see him go back to snowboarding. It’s quietly heartbreaking to see Kevin’s older brother David, who has Down syndrome, please with his brother to not snowboard anymore, and Kevin refuse to listen to him. He’s still convinced he’ll be fine.
The Crash Reel is still, in its way, an inspirational sports movie. But it’s inspirational in a completely different way than most are. It’s inspirational when Kevin finally accepts what has happened to him, and how he chooses to live with it for the rest of his life, and try to get better, rather than put himself at risk again. Is there another sports movie where the most inspirational moment comes when the “hero” finally gives up?