The sportsmen featured in this documentary waste no time letting us know that their field of expertise – quadriplegic rugby – is not the same kind of activity as that honoured by the Special Olympics. Fiercely proud, these guys hurls themselves into what is unofficially known as murderball, a tough game in which chariot-like wheelchairs smash into each other in order to get hold of the ball.
Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, sets out as a record of how this American team plays its way into the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. But every documentary filmmaker gambles on the hope that other stories, other conflicts, will emerge under the umbrella of such professional activity.
Here, two extra themes emerge. The first, in line with the current craze for documentary-as-therapy, is the tense relationship between the bullish coach, Joe Soares, and his sensitive, artistic, twelve-year-old son. Will Dad ever be able to fully love and accept his non-athletic offspring?
The second theme is more captivating. Soares, in a vengeful huff, has quit the American team and defected to Canada. Now the two teams face off. There is much abuse hurled at Joe as a 'traitor to his country'. Nationalist fervour, taken to the point of ugliness, runs deep.
All sports films, whether documentary or fiction, have to make a crucial decision when it comes to showing a particular match: whether to convey the narrative structure of that game, more or less point for point (which can be boring on screen), or instead simply give a vague but exciting impression of movement and noise, thrills and spills (thus sacrificing clarity for effect).
Murderball takes the latter option. This has the effect of making the clash of personalities into the main focus of any game, rather than the technical virtuosity of what these remarkable men are actually doing. It becomes a little like those galling fiction films where Al Pacino or Brian Dennehy hog the screen as flamboyant coaches yelling from the sidelines.
On another level, the film is a fascinating portrait of masculine identity in crisis. We hear often that, no matter how impaired these men may be, erectile dysfunction is certainly not among their physical handicaps. The compensatory touch of macho exaggeration evident in these guys is understandable and, finally, quite touching.
But Murderball, although it occasionally gives a sidelong glimpse at budding sportswomen, has absolutely no idea of how to extend its code of heroism beyond the male gender. We end up with a film about men proving themselves in extremis and women obediently fulfilling their designated role as nurturers and trophies.
© Adrian Martin September 2005