What Do Movies Like Bleed for This Owe Our Athletes?

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Miles Teller in Bleed for This. Photo: Open Road Films

The new boxing movie Bleed for This is pitched as a tribute to the triumphant mind-set of the natural-born athlete. The film tells the true story of Vinny Paz (né Pazienza), dubbed the “Pazmanian Devil” for his ferocity in the ring, whose career was seemingly cut short at the age of 28 when he suffered a serious spinal injury in a car accident. Doctors had to outfit the two-time light-middleweight world champion with a metal “halo” that screwed into his head and held his spine steady for six months, and advised him that merely being able to walk again would be a miracle. During this time, as you might expect, doctors, family, and business associates alike strenuously objected to Paz’s intentions to return to the ring and compete. But Paz insisted that boxing was all he knew how to do, and so, training with the halo on, he battled his way back into action, winning nine straight fights the very next year.

Paz possessed extraordinary physical gifts but was willing to throw himself into harm’s way again and again for the sake of the sport. In Bleed for This, the fictional Paz (Miles Teller) calls this impulse “not giving up,” but truthfully he’s falling in line with a familiar narrative, one that frames athletes as quasi-religious figures of suffering, sacrifice, and eternal glory. This kind of story is appealing for those us in the stands: It allows us to believe in something bigger than ourselves, a god of sports who rewards those persistent enough in their dreams to overpower the odds. In this story, serious physical injury is just another kind of oddsmaker.

As a boxing movie, Bleed for This is technically competent. It doesn’t touch upon the harsh socioeconomic and psychological undercurrents of the sport the way Rocky, Creed, The Fighter, and Raging Bull do, but, like Paz himself, it gets the job done with a bruising, punishing style. Director Ben Younger is at his best when depicting the medical realities of Paz's neck injury; he knows the image of Teller secretly lifting weights while his head is screwed inside what looks like a medieval torture device is irresistible. When the halo finally comes off, Younger's camera lingers on the excruciatingly painful way the doctors unscrew Paz’s head bolts, twisting ever so slowly as he screams in agony. (Paz refuses anesthesia, of course; give him suffering or give him death.) 

Teller in the lead is as jacked up as he was contractually obligated to be, but he’s more impressive in his rendering of Paz’s headstrong hyperconfidence, with a killer pre-match strut and a childlike need to be validated for his bravado at every turn. Staging a media event as he trains for his comeback bout, he’s visibly saddened when none of his fellow trainees at the gym want to spar him and take the risk of breaking his neck. Teller’s layered magnetism, in fact, makes you wonder how good Bleed for This could have been if the film took the time to seriously wrestle with the ramifications of Paz’s decision on the sports community at large.

The real Vinny Paz made a decision to gamble on his own life and it paid off big-time. By all means, make a movie about him. But it’s a telling component of this film’s narrative structure that the first people to suggest Vinny give up boxing following the car accident are his sleazy managers. Or that all of his pronouncements that he’s not yet finished are framed with a right-versus-wrong mentality — as in, how dare he give up just because his own body is perched on a precipice? The film's outright dismissal of reasonable medical advice is disheartening. Brain and spinal injuries are not trivial — they are not just someone folding their arms telling you “no,” and most of them don’t go away just because you force them to.

This isn’t the only kind of medical-comeback narrative at our disposal. Lucy Walker’s exquisite 2013 documentary The Crash Reel (now streaming on HBO), chronicled snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce’s efforts after to recover from a traumatic brain injury he suffered in a 2009 halfpipe crash. Over the period Walker observed, Pearce gets well enough to walk again, and soon straps on his board again to flirt with returning to the slopes. He does this against the insistent pleadings of doctors and family; like Paz, Pearce argues that, even though another blow to the head would likely kill him, there’s nothing else he could possibly do for the rest of his life. 

Bleed for This gives some lip service to Paz’s family's similar concerns, with his normally garrulous father (Ciarán Hinds) refusing to sit ringside during his big comeback fight. But Walker digs deeper, showing the serious heartbreak Pearce’s comeback attempts impose on his family, who, it goes without saying, would prefer to see him alive than dead. The Crash Reel shows how the effort to battle the best interests of one’s own body can be a fundamentally selfish act, not a divinely inspired one. The people we see in the film value Pearce as much for his brain as for his talents, and for him to put that brain in jeopardy is to reject a basic truth about who he is.

The unspoken question here is one that the sports-movie genre, and the world of sports at large, has avoided for quite some time: Which kinds of narratives should we be celebrating? Shouldn’t we recognize taking responsibility for your own body as a difficult feat in itself, instead of fetishizing the few folks who forgo caution and live to tell the tale? Today’s athletic landscape is one fraught with escalating dangers to its participants, from the NFL’s ongoing concussion crisis to the extreme-sports world’s implementation of ever-larger obstacles. The athletes crave the challenge, and the fans crave the show, and the result is a narrative feedback summarized by Teller’s Paz at the end of Bleed for This. Asked by a reporter what the biggest lie anyone ever told him was, he responds, “‘It’s not that simple.’” He clarifies: “It is that simple … If you just do the thing they tell you you can’t, then it’s done.”

But human bodies are not “that simple.” They are beautiful, complex instruments, and we still don't fully understand what they're capable of, especially once strenuous physical activity is involved. (See, for example, Paz’s own medically improbable success.)  There are times in sports when you can’t “just do the thing they tell you you can’t.” To succeed at a high level you must push your body past its breaking point; sometimes it will simply break. The elements that make Paz’s story so incredible are the same ones that make it so irresponsible to hold it up as an lesson: That he re-entered the ring against all medical and common sense, and succeeded anyway, makes him the exception, not the example.

However Paz defines “not giving up,” there are other ways to treat recovery narratives. The Crash Reel crafts a moving arc for Pearce’s journey, and ends by showing him making the bravest decision any professional athlete in his situation could do. 

He retires, and starts a foundation for brain-safety awareness.