Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Murderball (rerun)

This is a re-run of a movie review I wrote two years ago. It's a documentary; the kind for which Netflix exists—it has become one of my all-time favorite movies. I am just swamped today and have no time to write up any of the movies I saw this week. Sorry.

Murderball (2005) 9/10

Quad rugby ("murderball") players are followed from the World Championships in 2002 to the Paralympics Games of 2004. Quad rugby, or wheelchair rugby, is played by quadriplegics in specially-adapted and reinforced chairs. (Documentary)

In the movies, people in wheelchairs are a finite number of things. They are tragic, uplifting, inspiring, angry, brave, hopeful, or heartwarming. In Murderball, they’re guys. (Women in wheelchairs are seen only peripherally in the film.) Specifically, they’re guys on a sports team. In fact, if you want to generalize, they’re more typical of what you may think about athletes than of what you may think about people with disabilities. They’re interested in playing hard, proving themselves, partying, and picking up girls. They pull pranks, they roughhouse, they boast. They’re guys.


In a way, I realized, this is an obvious and overlooked aspect of quadriplegia. Many such injuries are acquired in typically macho ways: Extreme sports, bar fights, pranks gone wrong, drunk driving, war. We see the way that the injured have to rebuild their self-image, and nothing makes more sense than that they rebuild the macho part as well.

The basic story follows two men. Mark Zupan is one of the stars of the U.S. quad rugby team. One day he was out partying and fell asleep, drunk, in the back of his friend’s pickup truck. Later his friend, driving drunk, and with no idea Mark was in the back, crashed the truck. Zupan was thrown sixty feet and hung onto a tree in a canal for thirteen hours until someone heard his cries for help. We meet his girlfriend, we attend his high school reunion, and ultimately, we meet the driver of the pickup truck.

Joe Soares had childhood polio. He was a star of the U.S. team for years. When he was cut from the team (a coach says simply that age slowed him down) he sued, unsuccessfully, to get back on. Now he coaches the Canadian team and the rivalry between his former and current teams runs deep. We meet Joe’s wife and his son. The younger Soares is interested in music and academics, not sports, which creates tension between the two.

We also meet a recently injured man, Keith, who is first learning to face his injury. We follow him from the early days of rehab, through a meeting with Zupan at a presentation on quad rugby, where Keith is excited by the freedom and strength he feels in the rugby chair.

Murderball is a masterful film. The editing seamlessly carries you through a huge range of facets of the lives of these men. Just writing this up made me realize how very much I’d seen. We are educated about spinal cord injury, we traverse family relationships, sexuality, competition, guilt, friendship, family, remorse, anger, and play. The competitions are exciting, there’s humor, there’s even heartwarming stuff. We are allowed to draw conclusions without being pushed.

The meeting with Keith brought up the eternal question about documentaries; who are the documentarians, and what are they doing? Clearly, the filmmakers arranged for Zupan to make a presentation where Keith would be present, but how did they pick Keith in particular? How did they decide he would ultimately be excited about quad rugby? Did they follow several recently injured people in the hopes that one of them would be? These are the sort of questions I wish documentaries in general would answer.