‘Rising Phoenix’ Review: Carrying the Paralympic Torch

‘Rising Phoenix’ Review: Carrying the Paralympic Torch

The documentary “Rising Phoenix” opens with triumphant imagery: stone statues of Paralympians in a dim room, illuminated by beams of light. In voice-over, a competitor compares his fellow athletes to Marvel’s Avengers; like the characters, they excelled in the face of adversity. This image, of Paralympians as reborn superheroes, is central to the film’s facile portrait of the Paralympic Games. Its tribute could double as a commercial for the event — or, in blander moments, an ad for activewear.

The documentary (streaming on Netflix) makes its case by spotlighting a series of Paralympic athletes. As subjects, they are figures of valor, sharing their experiences with disability and the challenges they overcame in their sport. The directors, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (“McQueen”), illustrate the event’s scope by assembling competitors from around the world. The subjects’ backgrounds differ, but the accounts echo. Many were bullied or othered because of their disabilities, and used athletic prowess as a vector for power.

Intermixed with these profiles is a history of the Paralympics, a version of which was first organized in the wake of World War II. From there, the directors trace a line to the competition at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when severe budget cuts put the Games in jeopardy. Throughout, the documentary defends the Paralympics as vital, particularly as it coincides with the disability rights movement.

But “Rising Phoenix,” stacked with hero-worship, suffers from a lack of depth. Complicated topics, like the fraught relationship between the Paralympics and the Olympics, which take place in the same facilities but can receive uneven attention, are skimmed or skirted. And the highlighted athletes — to use the Avengers metaphor — appear far too much as Spiderman, rarely as Peter Parker. When, for instance, the film pictures the sprinter Ntando Mahlangu, it intercuts him with footage of a cheetah. By avoiding complexity, “Rising Phoenix” preserves its inspiring mood, but offers only a platform for champions who already dominate the arena.

Rising Phoenix
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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