Saturday, September 11, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Into The Wind"

(Real To Real)

(USA/Canada, 2010)

Directed by: Steve Nash and Ezra Holland

Terry Fox's heroic 1980 "Marathon Of Hope" has cemented itself in latter-day Canadian lore--it is now arguably our nation's primary narrative, eclipsing Banting's discovery of penicillin and the building of our national railroad (although he finished second to Tommy Douglas, the founder of our nation's Medicare system, in a recent CBC poll)--but this new ESPN-produced documentary manages to unearth some fresh insights and materials almost 30 years after Fox's too-young passing in 1981.

In a lean 51 minutes, we're retold what still plays like a truly astonishing scenario:

Just 21, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia-native Fox decided to do something for those stricken with cancer, having already lost a leg to the disease (that didn't stop him from becoming a high school wheelchair basketball champ). Inspired by American Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon, Fox plotted a course from east coast to west with friend (and driver) Doug Alward, and with typical Canadian indifference and aversion to anything resembling "hero-worship", his launch initially went largely unheralded in the national media went he took his first steps (with the aide of a prosthetic limb) from the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's, Newfoundland. Incredibly, even the Canadian Cancer Society, to whom he'd written a mission-statement, was reluctant to sponsor him until he'd secured additional financial sponsors.

But by the time he'd reached Ontario, his brother Darryl had joined him and Fox was heralded as a major celebrity. The PR machine was in full force: Fox was persuaded to delay his arrival in Ottawa until Canada Day, photo-ops were arranged with hockey legends Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr. He'd kick the first ball at a CFL game, and a huge celebration in his honour was held at Toronto's City Hall. Fox was offered everything from a car to a chance to promote Planter's Peanuts, which he entertained only if he could wear the Mr. Peanut outfit.

Fox would be forced to abort his journey on September 2, 1980 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when he was once again diagnosed with cancer that had now spread to his lungs. By then, he'd raised $1.7 million (although his intention was to raise just $1 from each of Canada's then-24 million citizens). He remains the youngest person ever named a Companion of the Order of Canada.

In a pre-wired era united by a single national television network, Fox's mission didn't exactly explode on the national scene (the CBC was reluctant to pay a cameraman overtime to cover Fox's launch in New Brunswick, and tellingly, the early momentum--such as it was--stalled in Quebec, where Fox assumed "people mustn't get cancer"). Nonetheless, Fox's trek electrified a nation, and a six-year old Steve Nash took daily notice of his integrity and passion.

Yes, that Steve Nash. The basketball sensation-turned-director (with assistance from his cousin, Ezra Howard) has studied his Errol Morris and Ken Burns well. No mere earnest talking-heads marathon, "Into The Wind" ambitiously attempts to recreate Fox's physically-and-emotionally tasking trek via location visits, dramatic restaging, first-time access to his personal journals (some achingly candid remarks voiced by Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch), and playful animations amidst the expected archival footage.

But it's the surviving personalities, friends and family close to Terry, who give the film its majesty and lingering resonance. Alward still seems affected by the events as if they happened yesterday, but he gamely revisits (and acts in restagings at) key locations--he's clearly still carrying the fire. During shooting, Alward's missing Econoline van was located by biographer Douglas Coupland, where it had been found in the possession of a young musician who'd inherited the vehicle, still in vintage 1980 shape, complete with shag carpet--from his father.

Fox's brother, father, and mother exude a salty grace despite their considerable loss and the weightiness of Terry's legacy. Betty Fox's reminiscences are particularly bittersweet despite her arch humour, given that--as Alward puts it so eloquently--"she never had time to grieve".

Even Fox's prosthetics specialist is still alive--and a impressive stop-motion animation assembles the prosthetic leg in all of its primitive intricacy.

Regrettably, the dirt bag reporter who wrote that Fox drove through Quebec (a flat-out lie that destroyed a lot of the boy's confidence) is never named or brought out to explain himself.

But Toronto Star reporter and biographer Leslie Scrivener ("Terry Fox: His Story") coins the best line: "we have no Martin Luther King, no Nelson Mandela. But we have Terry. His is a gritty story--head down, he worked hard. We work hard".

"Gritty" perhaps, yes, but as the archival footage illuminates, there was also such authority and passion in his voice for one so young. Canada--no, the entire world--not only lost an athlete, but a true ambassador of inspiration and goodwill. He could've been our Bill Clinton, the way he spoke of such universal truths with such conviction and humility.

"Into The Wind" will debut on ESPN this month as part of its "30 For 30" documentary series.

©2010 Robert J. Lewis