Imagine a documentary about the problem of heroin addiction that ultimately aestheticizes people shooting up. That’s what Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel seems to do for an issue of adrenaline addiction associated with extreme sports. At the end of the film, after following the story of professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce in the wake of a devastating 2009 head injury, throughout which we’re given a strong case for why he shouldn’t return to his passion and why the sport in general is too dangerous for anyone, Walker gives us a sequence of footage from 2007 showcasing Pearce’s pre-accident talents that indicates the danger is worth it because of the spectacular maneuvers we’re able to watch.
Or maybe finishing with that footage is a reminder that this isn’t an easy issue, that we in the audience may even be part of the problem, as spectators. Brain injury from athletic activity is a big topic at the moment, and Walker’s latest documentary hints about the problem being a systemic one. I completely disagree with one kid’s statement in the film about extreme sports viewers tuning in to see an accident, but there is a truth to viewers encouraging behavior that leads to accidents. At least for snowboarding, skateboarding, skiing and many other sports incorporating freestyle components, the primary appeal is in the success of unbelievable stunts. Otherwise we’d watch amateur contests rather than the Olympics.
The point that is continuously made in The Crash Reel is that these stunts keep getting harder, more unbelievable, more dangerous. Audiences would get bored of seeing the same maneuvers accomplished over and over. We need the next level every time. We need the half-pipes to be taller, the jumps to be higher, the flips to be more intricate. And that desire for improvement goes for the athletes, too, not just because there are people expecting it but because they have that competitive edge to top their peers and break records. There is obviously a connection here to the current problem with performance enhancement drugs, too (Walker doesn’t address this, nor does she need to). But as is also understood with Steve James’s 2012 doc Head Games, which mainly focuses on injury from contact sports like hockey and football, we as a society are not about to suddenly stop watching these games en masse because a small percentage of athletes suffer irreparable injury or even die from head trauma or if they keep poisoning themselves with drugs to help them exceed normal human capability.
That’s their own prerogative and gamble as players of the game, right? That’s Pearce’s own risk in becoming a snowboarder and striving to be the best. Dismissing the personal tragedy involved is only easy if you act like these athletes are just inhuman tools for our amusement. To watch The Crash Reel is to get at the specifics of at least one real person’s experience with a near-fatal blow and the uncontrollable urge to return to the same hazards. Walker puts us right beside Pearce at the hospital alongside his girlfriend and at the dinner table of his family as they all try to cope and then discourage him from getting back on the board — most heartbreakingly his younger brother makes some emotional statements regarding the latter. But Walker can’t put us into the mind of the subject, and with each step in his recovery we are left to wonder how and why he thinks it’s a good idea to continue with his profession. Especially as along the way we hear news of others like him who returned and eventually succumbed to terminal mishaps.
There is a montage a little more than midway through the doc that focuses on some of the worst accidents (a “crash reel,” if you will), although I don’t think it includes any of the deadly ones. It’s a difficult compilation of footage to watch, nevertheless, particularly in the way Walker cuts it together with each athlete involved describing the injury and aftermath in a brief interview. The sequence is nearly identical in purpose and effect as a montage seen in Blackfish, of accidents at SeaWorld involving orcas and their trainers. Both films deal with spectator events, but the incidents collected in The Crash Reel aren’t quite as cringe-inducing on their own the way those in Blackfish are. As Pearce says at one point, brain injuries are “invisible,” and even at the time of the accident viewers can not see the extent of damage. And they certainly can not see the subsequent coma, long-term rehabilitation therapy, eye surgeries or memory loss in that moment before everything is carried off screen or off course and they move on to the next performance.
What end result does a human-interest piece like this have for such a serious issue? While Blackfish is continuing to influence people to boycott SeaWorld, including professional music acts that had been scheduled to play in its parks, The Crash Reel is not going to have as much direct, empirical impact. Few are going to finish watching this film and decide to go protest the 2014 Winter Olympics, where Pearce’s former rival Shaun White will be demonstrating new incredible feats in order to outdo his own performance in 2010. Nobody thinks of White as lacking free will or being forced to perform and compete the way the animals at SeaWorld are. The question of whether extreme athletes are entirely in control of their desires or if there is some level of addiction at hand is one we’re left with at the end of Walker’s doc. But the easy and logical and popular answer is to say they are, and this doc won’t change that.
The Crash Reel isn’t simply about an issue, and at its core Walker presents a worthwhile story, compelling and moving, of an individual challenged by his tragedy and the internal debate that follows. Once again, Walker heavily relies on music (string-heavy, epic-sounding indie folk and electronica, including Bon Iver, Jose Gonzalez and M83 plus another score by Moby) to help in the emotional affect of the material, and once again she employes imagery that can be troublesome — more complicated than problematic. Coming after the poverty porn of her 2010 Oscar-nominated feature Waste Land and the disaster porn of her 2011 Oscar-nominated short The Tsunami and the Butterfly, the footage here of both spectacularly aestheticized peril and devastating misfortune is surprisingly less sensational, yet as in the case of the final visuals, Walker’s editorial choices are constantly perplexing, in a way that’s often more curious than questionable.
The new film might be better aligned with her greater work in Countdown to Zero (also 2010) in the way it tackles a frightening and ostensibly incurable problem. The way it is really just up to chance that gives us another day without a nuclear bomb going off somewhere or that gives these athletes another day without an explosion of another kind going off in their brain due to head injury. The difference, of course, is that the latter is a very specific and personal and at least initially very conscious choice and prospect. We can find broader, more universal matter, however, maybe when Pearce’s father compares snowboarding to smoking cigarettes, and consider different risks we all take in life and chance of accident or consequence in countless circumstances. What makes Pearce’s desires any different from the heart attack sufferer who still won’t give up the fast food he loves?
Mostly, though, this film is a strong character-driven work unlike we’ve seen from Walker in recent years. It’s less concerned with looking great or getting to the bottom of the larger ideas — which are still there yet more within the depth of the story, more in service to the telling of Pearce’s struggle than him being in service to the issue. You can tell how much Walker cares about Pearce and his family, which isn’t something I always feel with the subjects of her films. Part of that is just her sticking with them for a long time, and the emotionality of the story being there for her to connect with, but this doc is immersed in its narrative rather than looking at it from the outside. The family moments are more powerful because we’re made to feel like we are a part of the family.
That’s where we should want to be in the end, too, not on a snowboarding course, whether in the present or past. Because The Crash Reel transports us to so much of the action and drama in Pearce’s life, we have to be conflicted, even scared, if ever the film carries us into that dangerous terrain. And even though that final sequence is basically a flashback in the context of the film, in retrospect that kind of footage can be quite uncomfortable to watch. If that’s the point, in conclusion, then it’s perfect. Leave us with that so perhaps the next time we watch winter sports of this nature we connect back to this point. How many, though, are seeing it in a way where their response is, “aww, he was so good and it’s a shame he got hurt”? If there are a lot of people with that reaction, then that’s the real shame.
The Crash Reel is now playing theatrically in limited release in the U.S. and Canada. The film is also available on HBO On Demand and HBO Go and regularly airs on HBO’s cable networks.