Murderball, about Olympic-level quadriplegic rugby players both on- and off-court, screens to much ballyhoo on Ebertfest’s second day, and deservedly so. As Ebert says in the post-movie discussion, it’s a complete film that’s at once a backstage story, a reconciliation story, a rehab story, and a competition story about the US team’s rivalry with the Canadian team coach, former teammate and notorious hardass Joe Soares.
The first scene, in which American player Mark Zupan silently changes into his rugby gear in a small bedroom, sets the tenor: suspenseful, modest, unflinching. It is the most physically exposed any of the players will appear, but no details are ever spared, from the varying levels of disability of members on the team — one guy lost all his limbs to a childhood disease — to whether and how they can schtup. (Answer: mostly yes, and with some rather hot tamales). And though it’s a real sports movie, complete with ESPN-style action photography often shot from the height of the chairs, the stakes are much higher and very different. It’s not as if just playing is winning, Special Olympics style. In their armored chairs, these guys are cyborg gladiators, part men, part machines, and 100 percent out for blood. But each of them has already conquered so much internal mishegos in order to come to terms with their physical limitations that they radiate a Buddha-like equanimity right below the surface of their boys-will-be-boys bluster.
The exception is Joe, the 50something Team Canada coach who may be the most decorated quad rugby player to ever grace the court. Hailing from Portugal by way of Providence, Rhode Island, he’s anger incarnate, snarling at his violin-playing son who worships the ground he rolls on and who lovingly dusts the wall of trophies he has collected. Jargon-spouting, only unintentionally humorous, Joe is grimly set on besting the US team since he sued them for retiring him when he got older. Directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro pull no punches when it comes to depicting Joe’s real disability: a one-minded Massholia that (as always) trumps all other cultural and life experiences and that he is forced professionally and physically to confront. We see how, on his anniversary dinner, he responds to his long-suffering wife’s toast to him with a toast to Team Canada. We’re even privy to the operating room when his heart is literally surgically opened.
Joe’s emotional self-reckoning — check out the violin awards section he eventually adds to his trophy wall — dovetails with a rapprochement between Zupan and his lifelong best friend who, when they’re both 18, unintentionally, drunkenly pitches him out of the back of his truck and permanently paralyzes him. Neither storyline take a backseat to the actual face-off between the Canadian and American teams in Athens. Here’s where Murderball most sharply veers from more typical sports documentaries. The big match is captured with significantly less fanfare than is its emotional impact on the defeated players, who crumple into girlfriends’ and family members’ arms in painfully long shots. If winning isn’t everything, transcending failure is. And if there’s one thing these boys know, it’s how to get back up again and defeat emotional and physical obstacles just when most think they’d roll over and play dead.
At the question-and-answer period following the screening, Zupan and Joe join the filmmakers and Ebert. It’s refreshing to see that the feel-good post-coital of the documentary hasn’t altered either player. Zupan (who wheeled impatiently out of Playtime halfway through the screening night before) projects the same barely suppressed bemusement that he shows off-court during the film. He also still clearly loathes Joe, who, as onscreen, is loathsome in a totally likeable way. While the coach grandstands in bumper-sticker speak, Zupan can’t help but grimace.
Team Canada has axed Joe to his considerable confusion: “I don’t know what those guys wanted!” he tells the crowd with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. When asked whether he’d hire Benedict Arnold Joe back on as US coach, Zupan says, “My first reaction is no.” Joe’s smile temporarily tightens, how much his olive-branching to Zup is a job appeal suddenly revealed.
But both guys are united in their frankness, especially when it comes to negotiating their disabilities. In an especially good question, Ebert asks the players how the qualification system plays out. In the film, it’s established that each player is awarded a number of points based on how able-bodied he is: only eight points are allowed per team on court at a time. The bizarre result, Joe and Zupan acknowledge at the discussion, is that these players who spend so much of their life transcending their disabilities have to temporarily play up their weaknesses. Not to mention that, as the film also explores, committing to quad rugby typically only can occur once someone has psychologically eliminated the possibility that he’s going to walk again. A strange dance between acceptance and rejection of limitations.
As for how to approach the disabled, “It’s always better to ask questions,” Joe establishes. Zup takes it a step further. “If someone asks me how I’m different, I say, ‘I’m shorter than you. That’s the big difference. But you hit me, man, I’ll hit you back.’”
Every Murderball review is bound to deploy the word “balls” in one way or another, but it ain’t about balls. It’s about heart.