The Crash Reel: A Sports Movie About the Dangers of Sports

A new documentary about snowboarder Kevin Pearce has thrills and heroics, but forgoes the standard feel-good underdog story for a cautionary tale about head trauma in sports.
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(Jean-Christophe Bott, AP/Keystone)

On the morning of December 31, 2009, things were going pretty well for pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce. The 22-year-old was almost certainly going to represent the U.S. at the upcoming Vancouver Olympics. He had a budding rivalry with Shaun White, the "flying tomato" king of the halfpipe and 2006 Olympic gold medalist who he had beaten in several recent competitions. He was racking up sponsorships and getting attention from journalists. And he had an established crew of buddies and a girlfriend—all snowboarders—who traveled from halfpipe to halfpipe together.

But watching this series of victories unfold in the opening minutes of Lucy Walker's new film The Crash Reel is like watching a high-speed train hurtle toward a cliff: The motion and the scenery exhilarate, but you hold your breath in anticipation of the disaster ahead. That day, Pearce crashed during a training run on a halfpipe in Park City, Utah. The collision between Pearce's head and a slope of rock-hard ice that New Year's Eve wiped out not only his Olympic dreams but also his entire future in the sport.

The Crash Reel, which premieres tonight on HBO after garnering rave reviews at Sundance and other film festivals, depicts Pearce's recovery from what could have been a fatal brain injury. It shows how much that one failed trick would impact Pearce's family, his friends, and the larger sports community for years to come. And it sounds an alarm for more attention to preventing and treating brain trauma among today's athletes at all levels. What starts out as a behind-the-scenes look at pro snowboarding artfully becomes a haunting medical drama.

After a 10-day coma in January of 2010—during which the Pearce family sat vigilant and watched the boy in the next room, who had a similar traumatic brain injury (TBI), die—Kevin woke up. What followed was an arduous process of learning to walk again, to talk again, to reclaim basic motor skills—all in the hopes of, in Pearce's mind anyway, snowboarding again. Even the most optimistic doctors, though, said such an outcome was out of the question.

Perhaps because of the typical feel-good arcs of other (often fictionalized) stories like Pearce's, it's natural to hold out for the impossible-but-inevitable comeback. But it never happens. The Crash Reel is not a story about "the triumph of the human spirit"; it is a story about the mysteries of the human brain.

By paying attention to those subtle but disruptive lasting effects of Pearce's crash, Walker's film makes a strong case for more education and awareness about the risks of brain injuries in sports. There is perhaps nothing scarier than the prospect of an altered mind; whether suffering from dementia, an injury, or psychological trauma, a patient with a changed brain may look the same on the outside but experience major personality transformations.

And brain traumas are, of course, unique among sports injuries because often, it isn't until excessive damage has been done that it becomes clear an athlete should discontinue training or competing. A knee or arm injury puts an athlete out of commission for a while, but repeated brain trauma can go unnoticed or may simply not deter an athlete until the point when the trauma is so dramatic that it becomes career-ending or life-ending. It's obvious to everyone in the Pearce family (and entourage) that Kevin must not return to the halfpipe because a second crash, even a minor one, could now kill him. That is, it's obvious to everyone but Kevin. When he announces over dinner that he plans to return to the sport, his parents and two older brothers, Adam and Andrew, sit speechless. But David, Kevin's brother with Down's Syndrome, has no qualms about addressing the grim reality of life after a TBI. "If you crash again, you will die," David says. "I don't want you to die."

It's unclear whether Kevin's refusal to accept the facts comes from the stubbornness of a young athlete or the confusion of a brain-injury patient. His attitude changes, however, after his mother, Pia—whose strength and poise make her an instantly sympathetic maternal figure—arranges a meeting with another snowboarder who suffered a repeat head trauma. When Kevin's new friend laughs while recounting the time he drove over a sibling with a golf cart (behavior we are meant to understand resulted from his brain injury), Kevin smiles and laughs weakly, then turns to the camera with a look of horror and mouths "He's crazy." When they leave, Pia doesn't have to say anything. Kevin wonders if one more crash—if he survived it—would make him crazy, too.

The Crash Reel also shows just how difficult it is to take measures to prevent brain trauma in an environment where athletes and their fans are obsessed with pushing limits. Pearce crashed trying to land something called a double cork 1080, a trick that was unimaginable five years ago but that White and others began attempting as half pipes started getting bigger and it became possible to get "more air." The risky escalation isn't limited to professional sports, either: High-school and collegiate athletes under pressure to play year-round suffer high rates of concussions, jeopardizing their academic careers as well as their ability to safely participate in sports for the rest of their lives.

The film addresses—yet willfully doesn't make a judgment on—the tricky ethics of accountability for sports injuries. Whose job is it to protect athletes from themselves? Is it wrong to promote, or pay to watch, athletes launch themselves 20 feet in the air above icy slopes at speeds of 40 miles per hour? Interviews with White and other snowboarders reveal no direct answers to these questions. The athletes acknowledge a fear that what happened to Pearce could happen to them, but they resign themselves to the fact that "shit happens."

Although Pearce himself remains reluctant to condemn the sport that has defined his life (in one way, and now in another), his latest project advocates for athlete-safe reforms in snowboarding. The Pearces are promoting a "Love Your Brain" campaign in tandem with the film's release, and Kevin now travels the country telling audiences, "A helmet saved my life."

The Crash Reel's hybrid format—part sports doc, part nonfiction health drama—delivers the most affecting parts of both genres. The Pearces' heroic efforts to educate athletes and prevent brain trauma in sports make them just as inspiring as any underdog sports-movie heroes. And like a medical documentary should, the film convincingly urges viewers to be more protective and more appreciative of their own health—and in this case, of the gray matter between their ears.

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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