As the Sochi Olympics loom, this is without a doubt the documentary to see. Directed by Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel is a powerful and sobering look at the blood on the snow of the action sports world, and it forces us to question our devotion to cliches like “go big or go home.” At the film’s center is snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who was considered to be an Olympic team favorite before the 2010 games in Vancouver. But while in training some 50 days before the competition, Pearce attempted a trick called a cab double cork — a tumble of spinning flips that needs to be seen to be understood — and landed with his face slamming into the halfpipe wall. The movie starts off with this horrible crash before showing us who Pearce is and how that unlucky event changed his life and that of those around him.
Two things about the snowboarder’s life, aside from his injury, are remarkable. One is his childhood friendship with the freakishly talented Shaun White. The two had been friends right up to the moment when Pearce bested White for the first time, at which point they became rivals. Aside from being an interesting story, the tale shows just how good Pearce was in his prime. The second remarkable aspect of Pearce’s life is his family, particularly his little brother David, who has Down Syndrome. Again and again at family dinners, David shows himself to be his family’s emotional spokesperson. He pleads with his older brother not to snowboard again, not to end up in the hospital again, not to die. But for a long while, all Pearce wants is the feeling he gets riding a snowboard.
Eventually, the movie’s moral gut-punch sinks in: Sometimes, you have to give up on your dreams. Despite how far one comes in recovery after a traumatic brain injury, the brain can not take those kinds of falls a second or third time. Just one bad crash cost Pearce aspects of his vision, his sense of balance and severely impaired his memory. Candidly, the film shows Pearce — whom his father once called “the boy who can do anything” — struggling with that which he’s hopeless to fix.
Solutions aren’t ever really offered in the film. Helmets, while certainly encouraged, can’t really protect those who ride Olympic-style superpipes. The force of impact from such big falls is just too great. Insurance, which many of these riders lack, is another issue. And then there’s the cultural questions the film asks in so many ways. Such as: When will these athletes have gone big enough? When will the organizations who put on events, the sponsors, and the audiences put more thought into keeping athletes healthy? And is the value of spectacle such that it should cost performers their lives?
Who knows? But asking such questions strikes a nerve because snowboarders, and other athletes, are admired precisely because of their bravery. No one wants to ask these people — who are striving to go bigger, harder, faster, higher — to tone it down. Yet it’s hard not to feel such sadness in the middle of Crash Reel, where there’s an actual montage of people crashing to mull over. It comes after we’re well acquainted with Pearce’s injury, and it shows snowboarders, skiers, dirt bikers and other athletes taking absurdly terrifying falls. A brief loss of control, a single mishap, a slight misjudgment results in heads hitting ramps or snowmobiles crashing down on skulls. Watching it, you don’t wince. Your heart just breaks. For each of these moments must have changed not one life, but many. That a documentary can bring such gravity to YouTube-style compilations is a testament to its power. Crash Reel is a must-see for anyone who’s ever even thought about strapping on a GoPro, or dropping into a halfpipe.
The Crash Reel is playing at St. Anthony Main.