- The Crash Reel (2013) dir. by Lucy Walker
In 2009, Kevin Pearce was a rising star in snowboarding. He held multiple commercial endorsements and was a favorite to compete for a medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Perhaps he would even unseat his rival Shaun White as the face of the sport. But, as documented in Lucy Walker’s thoughtful and moving documentary The Crash Reel, a violent accident on the last day of 2009 radically changed the trajectory of Kevin’s career and his life. He crashed in training while attempting a complex and dangerous move called a “cab double cork.” On his landing, a minor mistake caused his head to slam into the hard, packed snow of the halfpipe. Blood ran from his nose, mouth, and eye. He was unresponsive and trembling “like when you pull a fish out of water,” a friend recalled later. Airlifted to the University of Utah Medical Center, Kevin remained in a coma for several weeks.
After emerging from the coma, Kevin slowly regained his ability to walk, remember his name, and perform basic life tasks. Eventually, but well before he was in full command of his faculties, he became focused on an eventual return to the pinnacle of his sport. Kevin’s doctors and his family were wary. He had suffered scarring on his brain, and another fall could have disastrous, perhaps fatal, consequences. Much of the film’s drama lies in the tension between Kevin and his close-knit family as they debate his possible return to the sport. These sequences offer many poignant utterances of love and concern (especially by Kevin’s brother David, whose Down syndrome does not prevent him from expressing the most direct and eloquent sentiments). These scenes offer an unusual look at an athlete grappling with the personal benefits and costs of elite sport and the consequences of his decisions for those who love him. The film explores Kevin’s struggle to imagine an identity outside sporting competition and all the gendered validation it carries, despite his unusual level of financial security (Kevin’s father is the renowned glass-blower Simon Pearce), with unusual thoughtfulness and detail.
What is most valuable about the film, however, is how director Lucy Walker raises difficult, complicated questions about the ethics and consequences of athletic spectacle. As a nascent sport, snowboarding offers an unusually concentrated study in the pressures of the mediated demand for spectacle and its consequences for athletes. Encouraged by television’s interest, the halfpipe walls have grown from eight feet in depth in the early 1980s to fifteen feet and eventually to their current standard of twenty-two feet. Under these conditions, Olympic-level snowboarders reach speeds of forty miles per hour. Flung twenty feet above the edge of the halfpipe, they perform a series of spins, flips, and other acrobatics, whose drama is increased by the obvious risks. Because injuries are so common, elite snowboarders must practice new moves in specially designed training facilities equipped with large airbags to ensure some measure of safety. But even these extraordinary features do not eliminate the risk of devastating brain injury. In one scene, Kevin meets a brain-battered snowboarder whose cognitive and emotional impairment shakes him to his core. [End Page 100] A close friend of Kevin’s and an accomplished halfpipe skier, Sarah Burke, dies after falling in training about a year after Kevin’s injury. These kinds of injuries are not limited to the halfpipe. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Vancouver Olympics and the spate of deaths relating to head injuries sustained by American football players offer other examples of sports where the demands of spectacle come at the expense of athletes’ safety.
The Crash Reel examines this tension in a variety of ways. The title of Walker’s film is a reference to the hundreds of snowboarding, skiing, and skateboarding video compilations that revel in the visceral pleasure of high-speed crashes, with no thought to their long- (or even short-) term consequences. Walker’s film, by contrast, constantly reminds viewers of the potential...