From the sanguinary fisticuffs that adorn the average hockey game to the sundry concussions at the heart (or head) of American football, sports are not generally enjoyed for their deference to safety and moderation. But if sports already flirt with the unduly perilous—if they encourage and reward the liberation of teeth, the tearing of cartilage, the cleaving of bone—what could possibly constitute an extreme sport, besides more peril? Well, as Lucy Walker’s new documentary The Crash Reel inadvertently illustrates, it seems that an extreme sport is any activity at which you can become so talented that you risk killing yourself doing it. This is because in extreme sports, unlike other pastimes, danger is commensurate to skill. The parkour pro, negotiating ever more precarious skylines, risks a slip that could shatter a skull. The expert rock climber, scaling mountains of unprecedented altitude, is only a misstep away from the plummet. The rest of us needn’t worry: an amateur simply can’t muster much risk.
Walker’s favored extremity in The Crash Reel is snowboarding, which, as extreme sporting events go, appears rather mild—its traumas and injuries are thoroughly wince-inducing, but compared to, say, wingsuit diving, the mortality rate among its practitioners remains low. But Walker has seized upon snowboarding just as it approaches a newly hazardous precipice, and one of the remarkable things about The Crash Reel is how it chronicles the sport’s sudden drop off the other end. The catalyst, as the Cold War-like dramatics of the form dictate, is rivalry: Kevin Pearce and Shaun White, former friends and embittered adversaries, come to represent the film’s evenly matched hero and villain—Pearce the good-natured underdog on his way up, White the vainglorious champion whose years-long reign seems threatened. Of course, story, in a documentary, is nothing more than a pretense in thrall to the life from which it’s fashioned, and a filmmaker can only do so much to sculpt reality to her liking. But Walker has no need to anyway: here she’s happened upon a real-life conflict of almost inherently cinematic interest, and all she needs to do is hit record and wait.
For roughly forty minutes, at least, this strategy yields drama on par with a scripted thriller. As the Pearce/White fracas escalates, the tension mounts until it seems as if the only resolution could be either a miraculous breakthrough in the upper limit of snowboarding virtuosity or the death of one of the combatants. In the end—or somewhere toward the middle of the film’s second act, anyway—a third alternative presents itself, and it doesn’t prove especially pretty. As the gap between events of any significance begins to narrow, the air of desperation that clings to our warring riders seems to thicken. It’s perceptible in their faces: wind-lashed, squinty, always cringing. A desperate man, given unbearable pressure and inexhaustible means, will find quickly find a way to vault over plateaus, and in the case of Pearce and White this meant constructing private half-pipes lined with crash pads and safety nets, the better to practice stunts of outlandish height and complexity. But plateaus are natural—they entrain the rhythm of organic growth and betterment, and prevent you from soaring out beyond a necessary upper limit. The Crash Reel shows how Kevin Pearce found his upper limit. It nearly killed him.
Pearce’s accident—a nasty spill on the comedown of a yet-unperfected trick—was debilitating, instantly retiring him from both his rivalry and his sport. This is what’s known, in the realm of storytelling, as a “tragic turn of events,” and as The Crash Reel proceeds to realign itself around its unexpected circumstances it’s difficult to shake the impression that Walker has lucked into a story of rather more dramatic weight. The film does its best to nurse the tragedy, shifting its emphasis from the action of the open air to the sadness that takes its place in its forced absence. But what’s missing, I think, is a moral sense: shouldn’t the lesson we derive from Pearce’s injury be that snowboarding, at its most extreme, poses a danger to its performers that eclipses its entertainment value? With fights in hockey and concussions in football you get the sense that it’s a product of the culture of the sport—the bloodlust of the crowd eclipses the safety of the players paid to satisfy them. But in snowboarding, the issue seems to be self-generated: the players do it to themselves by aspiring to a level of skill that lay beyond protection from harm. Surely that’s a point worth investigating in the aftermath of one of the sport’s most high-profile accidents—one which, given its unwavering popularity, is suppressed enough in public conversation as is.
Director: Lucy Walker
Writer: Pedro Kos, Lucy Walker
Starring: Kevin Pearce, Shaun White, Mason Aguirre
Release Date: Dec. 13, 2013 (limited)