- Movie Rating -

Rising Phoenix (2020)

| August 25, 2020

Netflix’s new Paralympics documentary Rising Phoenix is a movie that humbled me.  From now on, when I find myself griping that something is too difficult, I will remember the sight of Matt Stutzman, an armless Paralympic athlete shooting a bow and arrow with his feet.  What makes it even more humbling is that he scores a bullseye!

The can-do spirit of Rising Phoenix is what makes it one of the best films of the year, the stories of disabled athletes who spend all of their mental and physical energy to compete in the Paralympic Games, pushing their incomplete bodies to the absolute limit not just to be the best, but to prove that they are more than the sum of their circumstances.  Behind every Paralympic athlete lies a story, whether they were born disabled or acquired it along the way, there is a raging fire burning in these people that keeps them going and their spirit keeps us rooting for them.

The people who compete in the events are not only strong, but incredibly resourceful.  They have had to figure out ways to get around their limitations, not just to be a world-class athlete but simply to function in every day life.  In almost every story, youth was clouded by doubt, uncertainty and a steady diet of No! No! No! No! No! No! No!  What is interesting is that every story is different.  They didn’t just rise above adversity; they came to it either through self-determination and most often through the encouragement of one individual who was willing to believe in them.  Either way, everyone has their own journey.

There’s Ellie Cole who had a leg amputated as a child due to cancer and then went on to become a champion swimmer and woman’s basketball player.  She calls her gold medal “The silver lining of being sick.”

There’s Jean-Baptiste Alaize, who was born in Burundi and had his leg hacked off in the Burundian Civil War at the age of three.  Years later when he went to France to get a prosthetic, he remained there and ended up representing France in the games competing in the sprint and the long-jump.

There is Tatayana McFadden, a Russian-born sprinter who was born with spinal bifida and was abandoned by her mother in an orphanage that was so underfunded that it couldn’t afford her a wheelchair.  Given that, she learned to walk on her hands.  She was adopted by an American couple visiting Russia as a commissioner of disabilities for the United States Department of Health.  They adopted Tatyana and brought her back to the states.  She was given a formal education, participated in every sport from swimming to gymnastics to sled Hockey to wheelchair basketball and even track and field.  And for those efforts, she has netted seventeen Paralympic gold medals.

But the one I’ll remember is Bebe Vio, an Italian fencer whose philosophy about her circumstances gives the film its title.  She sees herself like the mythical phoenix burned to ash and then rising again.  As an 11-year-old, she was already training to be an athlete but after losing all of her limbs to meningitis, her father taped a foil to her now-amputated arm and she had to learn a different set of skills.  Her journey toward to the 2016 games gives the film it’s exhilarating climax.  The pure fight that she puts up during Wheelchair Fencing is worth watching all by itself.

From the stories of the athletes, we learn is that the games, which take place immediately after the Olympics, are about much more than Faster Higher Stronger.  It’s about reclaiming something that has been lost, about the feeling of being whole again.  And for the world, it is the most extreme example that disabled people have to come from a much farther place, mentally, physically and emotionally to be the best at any physical activity.  Prince Harry, who was the founder of the Invictus Games (a Paralympics for wounded service men and women), makes regular commentary in the film and reminds us that the Paralympics are invaluable because it shows you something that you’ve been taught is impossible.

The stories are inspiring (and, again, humbling) but there is another level to the film that I didn’t expect.  Halfway through, we are introduced to Eva Loeffler, the mayor of the 2012 games whose father was Ludwig Guttman, the founder of the Paralympic Games.  Speaking with a tone of heartbreaking pride she recalls her father’s story; he was a Jewish doctor born in Germany who escaped the country because of Hitler’s rise to power.  In England after World War II, he dedicated his life to helping soldiers who had been crippled by spinal injuries during the war – soldiers who were prone to infections and were likely to die in only a few months.  His technique was to have the patient’s turned every two hours to keep them from getting bedsores.  Then, as a boost of morale, he got them out of bed to play sports.  From this, he organized the first Paralympics right in the hospital and four years later it became an annual event.

The beginnings of the Paralympics might not seem as interesting as the stories told by the athletes but the movie contrasts their struggle for perfection against the odds with the story of one man who was determined to see them as more than a lost cause.  That’s part of what makes Rising Phoenix great – that one individual who cared enough and was passionate enough to see the strength in those who had been written off as a lost cause.  This is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized