You know those thousands of heartwarming, triumph of the human spirit, disease-of-the-week movies? With heroes and heroines who suffer through every possible medical catastrophe and become better people and learn the meaning of life? I know they are supposed to be all reassuring and inspiring and all that, but they don’t come close to being as reassuring as this film, which lets us know without any equivocation that even the most dramatic, the most traumatic, the most catastrophic injuries do not change people.
The fact that the “us” of ourselves continues, that people who are injured don’t cross some big divide to find inner peace and transcendence so that they feel better off for what happened to them — now that is the kind of resilience of the human spirit I can appreciate.
Not that the stars of this documentary, the United States Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby team, are not awe-inspiring examples of heart and courage. You will never find better on screen — documentary or fiction. It’s just that they were all that before they were confined to wheelchairs, and they kept every bit of it. Another thing they were before they were confined to wheelchairs was badass guys with impulse control problems, and that hasn’t changed either. What has changed is that now they are in wheelchairs and now they feel like they don’t have anything left to lose. This is not heartwarming, cuddly, or safe. it is bracing, brash, harsh, and angry. And it is thrilling.
It doesn’t seem right to call people with such determination and eneregy “confined.” Their spirits just explode out of the chairs, especially when they are playing a game that was originally called Murderball. They had to change it to “Wheelchair Rugby” because for some reason no corporate sponsor wanted to be affiliated with a game called Murderball.
It doesn’t really have anything to do with rugby. Basically, there are two rules. The first governs the team. It is a complex point system assigned to each player based on his ability to move his arms (none of them can grip well enough to hold onto the ball — they have glue on their palms). To make sure that the sides are evenly matched, each side’s players may add up to no more than an 8 at any given time. The second rule governs the play and it is very simple — “kill the man with the ball.” The game they play owes less to rugby than it does to hockey, dodgeball, battering rams, and bumper cars in their most extreme forms. This movie makes clear that there is no doubt these are athletes who are full-out all the time and give everything there is.
As it opens, the U.S. has won the world championship 11 times, every year since the beginning. The unquestioned greatest player of all time is repeated MVP Jose Soares, the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods of Wheelchair Rugby.
An athlete can fight just about any physical limit except for time. When Soares is not picked for the team because he is getting too old, he decides to coach Team Canada. And they beat the Americans. So the primary focus of the movie is the efforts of the US team to win back the title.
As they train, we meet the players and their families and we hear their stories, especially the story of Mark Zupan, a risk-taker and party animal who was injured in a drunk driving accident in which the driver, his best friend, was not badly hurt. We see Soares with his wife (on their anniversary, she toasts, “To you” and he toasts, “To Team Canada. To the gold.”) and with his son (who hopes the game won’t keep his father from an important event of his own).
We learn about how they manage everything from getting dressed to eating pizza to having sex (including footage from a very explicit but very amateurish how-to-video). And we follow a recently injured man as he goes through rehab and, in a wrenchingly bittersweet scene, returns home. The memories of his able-bodied life impress upon him all that he has lost more than all of the months of rehabilitation. But the specially equipped rugby chair gives him a different perspective.
It gives us one, too.
Parents should know that this movie includes constant very strong language and explicit sexual references and situations, drinking (including drunk driving), smoking, and drug use. Explicit images of surgery and references to serious accidents and injuries may be disturbing to some audience members.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the players decide what is important to them. Who is right about Jose’s decision? How did Jose’s relationship with his son change? What do you think about Zupan’s parents’ comments about Igoe, the friend who caused Zupan’s injuries? Why was it hard for Zupan and Igoe to talk to one another? Why did Zupan want Igoe to see him play? Why does the movie end where it does?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Inside Moves, co-starring Harold Russell, the WWII disabled veteran who was a two-time Oscar winner for The Best Years of Our Lives. They might like to compare this movie to an early film about people adjusting to wheelchairs, The Men, with Marlon Brando in his first movie role.