For decades in American professional sports, the phrase "dinged up" explained a wide profile of injuries—the connecting elbow up to the multi-player collisions at breakneck speed. It also served as an approval: players would battle through severe head injuries to return to the field, the threat of a roster change likely front and center in their shaken minds.
Only now are the unseen effects of these "dings" edging into view: recently, more than 4,500 former NFL players settled with the League for $765 million, on the grounds that they were deluded over the lasting repercussions of head injuries. This followed several cases of NFL players committing suicide, via gunshot to the chest, with notes asking for their brains to be donated to medical research.
It's clear that the household names we see plastered across TV screens, clothing, and video game covers face a unique interior struggle, one compounded by industry pressure and an intensified training regime. And in the first few minutes of Lucy Walker's HBO documentary, "The Crash Reel," we watch the formation on two of those thrill-seekers—snowboarders Kevin Pearce and Shaun White—in a stunning mosaic of event, cellphone, and home video footage.
Phenoms from an early age on a worldwide stage, Kevin and Shaun transition from adolescent friendship to competitive respect in adulthood—each one-half of a picture perfect rivalry. Shaggy-haired, jovial, and intensely dedicated, they swap first and second place across competitions from Colorado to Japan, prank one another alongside their contemporaries, and net sponsorship deals with ease.
As we follow them in their early-20s during the film though, one event looms above all: the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which press and fans alike deem a deciding arena for Pearce and White's talents. The two professionals respond to the challenge with total immersion: customized half-pipes, man-made avalanches for pristine conditions, and tricks escalating in complexity. Ordinary life is shut out completely, until a simple technical error alters Kevin's future in one misguided move.
The moment comes suddenly and without warning. During a half-pipe training run in Park City, UT, Kevin attempts a cab double cork move and lands sideways, head hurtling into the icy ramp bottom. He's immediately knocked into a coma and airlifted to the hospital, where he remains in critical care with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). "You need to be prepared for the Kevin who comes back not to be the same Kevin," the doctor warns the Pearce family: mother Pia; father Simon, and their three sons David, Andrew and Adam. And indeed, when Kevin shows signs of movement ten days later, it's clear a shift in personality will only be the first of many changes.
"The Crash Reel" is not an arduous day-to-day account of Kevin's recovery, which slowly progresses over the course of years in movement and speech; nor is it tethered to the minutiae of snowboarders' lives and their medical battles. Instead, the film succeeds by honing in on questions of independence, safety, and familial support: Should Kevin's family stand behind him as his motor abilities return along with his passion to compete? Or should they side against their son with the doctors, who continually exhibit scans of Kevin's brain and warn against another fall?
The logical answer is clear-cut, but logic keeps slipping away in the Pearce's conflicted emotions following Kevin's request. One ardent supporter of Kevin's early retirement is his brother, David—who also ranks among the most compelling aspects of the film. He possesses the same athletic bent as Kevin, having competed as a snowboarder in the Special Olympics (David has Down's Syndrome). But however well he knows the adrenaline rush that snowboarding affords, the memory of Kevin's extended hospital stay still binds him to a cautious resolve.
These moments of tension build in nearly every scene, while Walker observes therapy sessions, physical rehab exercises, and dinner conversations with a searching eye. As Kevin articulates his plans of returning to snowboarding, the expressions around the room are wound tight, waiting until they have to exhaustingly argue the opposite point.
Walker, last seen in features with the humanistic doc "Waste Land", has a transformative visual sense with facts; she conveys Kevin's yearning with spectacular showcases of snowboarding at its finest, scored to an stirring selection of rock and pop tracks. They are wondrous montages, but also tragic reminders of the professional avenue closed off from Kevin. Shaun White, who's mostly portrayed in the film as a distanced, mechanical perfectionist, admits to being deeply aware of this fact, and also Kevin's condition—their previous equality now a seismic gap in ability from freak circumstances. "What I've been telling myself since Kev got hurt is that 'shit happens,'" another friend explains, "And there's just no apparent reason for it sometimes."
While seen by most as an anomaly, Walker sees Kevin's accident as an intimate example of a larger possible epidemic, explored when she devotes time to professional snowboarders and their accounts of career injuries. The results are shocking but understandable: none have sustained less than ten broken bones, and the number of concussions isn't too far behind. Together, their answers start to reveal a crippling cycle of harm in extreme sports—a place where regulations are relaxed in service of a more spectacular show. This notion reaches its peak with one last, disturbing compilation: an endless index of every type of missed trick-turned-brutal spill, narrated by the weakened voices that experienced them.
Among those interviewed in the film is Sarah Burke, a pro freeskier who later died from brain injuries while training on the same half-pipe where Kevin had his accident. Thankfully, out of this tragic turn Walker doesn't convince us of a conspiracy; she explores a shameful fact—Burke's energy drink sponsor refused to pay for her mounting medical bills—but still a tone of tribute lingers for a person that many in the snowboarding community knew and loved. Ultimately, "The Crash Reel" transcends the conventional sports doc for precisely this reason: it refuses to moralize the painful reality of extreme sports, and then explores the juggling act of love and caution that each athlete, and their families, practices every day. The Pearce family is an enthralling and vital case of such behavior.
LoveYourBrain is the outreach campaign created from Kevin Pearce's tale, dedicated to education on TBIs and how to prevent them.
Available through September on HBO, and in U.S. cinemas December 2013.