October 10, 2005 -- “Murderball” is the best documentary I have seen in some time. It has a powerful narrative, strong characters, rousing action and an uplifting story about the power of the human spirit. It does more than just show us a world few people know about, it gives us a rare glimpse into the hearts and minds of its subjects. Like all good documentaries, this one gives us unbelievable access into the innermost lives of its subjects. Unlike “Million Dollar Baby,” which presented a fictional, defeatist view of people with spinal cord injuries, this is the real deal.
“Murderball” is a name for wheelchair rugby, a kind of cross between rugby and bumper cars. Men in armored wheelchairs try to carry a ball across a goal line in an arena the size of a basketball court. The other team tries to stop the man with the ball by ramming their wheelchairs into his, or knocking the ball loose with their hands. According to the movie, this sport is played by quadriplegics. Now, I always thought a quadriplegic was a person whose arms and legs are paralyzed, and that a paraplegic had paralysis of the legs, but not of the arms. It turns out it is more complicated than that. It turns out that there are various degrees of paralysis. Some people who have quite a lot of control of their arms and hands are still considered quadriplegics, at least under the rules of this particular sport.
One such man is Mark Zupan, one of the best wheelchair athletes in the world. He has a fairly high level of function in his arms and hands. He is considered a “three” in terms of his upper body function. Each player on the team is rated in this way and a team can only field a certain number of high-functioning players on the floor at one time. This rule means that players of different levels of disability can make the team and play. Zupan is a very hard-nosed competitor and is imposing with his goatee and bold tattoos. Just as hard-nosed is one of his opponents, Joe Soares, a former all star player who switched sides to coach the Canadian team after he was cut from the United States team. Soares wants to beat the United States team in the worst way. He is a tremendous competitor.
Both Soares and Zupan are abrasive competitors who engender both respect and hatred. They are the most interesting personalities in the conflicts between the United States and Canadian teams, two of the best teams in the world. A good example of the kind of spirit we're talking about here can be found in a story told by Soares in the film. As a young boy afflicted by polio, he was tormented by other children. One boy, in particular, liked to attack Soars. One day, Soars managed to trip his tormenter and get him down on the ground, where he beat the other boy badly. He said proudly “I had more upper body strength than he did.” Both Soares and Zupan are men who give no quarter and ask none.
The film also interviews a variety of other wheelchair athletes, including some people who have just recently gotten spinal cord injuries. We see them going through painful physical therapy. One man, a former motorcycle rider, gets to borrow Zupan's armored rugby wheelchair. He is delighted in the sturdiness of the rig and can't wait to get his own. Zupan, in turn is delighted at the young man's reaction. We get the feeling that we have witnessed a future wheelchair rugby star being born. In interviews, we also find out about the sex lives of the men, in some detail. Their girlfriends also discuss this part of their lives. One man in a wheelchair admits that the more helpless he appears, the better his chances with the opposite sex. We also get to know the softer side of Soares and Zupan. We see Soares with his wife and young son. We also see how Soares mellows somewhat after a serious heart attack. The camera is in the operating room during Soares' surgery.
After a time, we learn that a great deal is possible for people with spinal cord injuries and that these people have no use for people who feel sorry for them. Of course we also get to see several titanic battles between team USA and team Canada. They are all close, hotly contested games. The emotions in the victors are volcanic. These eruptions of joy are not surpassed anywhere in the world of sports. The same could be said for the sorrow of the losers. The only bad thing is the competition is so fierce that the two sides can't really put their animosity behind them. Soares is considered a traitor to his country by his former team. No reconciliation seems to be forthcoming. In human dimensions, this film far eclipses the little world of sports. It is, in essence, the most human of all stories. This film rates a B+.
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