DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable
BETHANY HAMILTON: UNSTOPPABLE — 4 STARS
At the penultimate moment of comeback surfing accomplishment for Bethany Hamilton in Unstoppable, there is this colossal shot that is simply heaven-sent. Flying down from a towering and clouded height of serenity and scope above the green Maui coastline, the overhead camera drops more and more into a maelstrom of big waves below. It picks up a speck, a point of focus, riding across this monstrous wave. It’s her, slaying this natural beast with talent unbound by any age or disability. With the woman’s faith always leading her in all things, it’s as if this swooping gaze comes from the approval of heaven itself.
The light produced by this documentary matches the inspirational shine of the subject herself. Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable is an admirable and impressive chronicle of its sunlit sporting world of “calculated chaos.” Over and over, with every step she takes forward as a woman and as a competitor, Bethany Hamilton remains undefined by the famous shark attack incident that claimed her left arm. Instead, her actions and stature make her the pillar worth celebrating.
In his third surfing-centered documentary following The Pursuit and Lakey Peterson: Zero to 100, director and lead cinematographer Aaron Lieber takes his camera into turbulent natural and personal currents. The culminating challenge described above is previewed to open the film. Bethany Hamilton, 26 at the time of this film, thirteen years after losing her arm which temporarily derailed her budding professional surfing career, is looking down the Jaws surf break of Maui, a renowned place powered by a seasonal El Nino and known for some of the biggest waves in the world. On this day, it’s not about scoring or competition. It’s about conquering where people said you cannot.
Before we reach that climax, Unstoppable swirls through Bethany’s life story. Between her equally competitive sibling and ever-supportive parents, the documentary astutely describes the layers of support from this upbringing that would define Bethany’s high personal standards. Through the keen splicing of editor and co-writer Carol Martori (From Here to There), the multitude of home videos from the Hamilton family offer the genuine article in all her steadfast action, in and out of the water. The attention that came to her life after 2003’s calamity only increased the camera material covering Bethany, including 2011’s excellent dramatization Soul Surfer.
LESSON #1: DEFYING HANDICAPS — Of the many adjectives one can use to describe Bethany Hamilton, do not call her “disabled” or call her condition a “disability.” She aimed to compete on the same level as her peers, period, and even declined a 2016 ESPN ESPY Award nomination for Best Female Athlete with a Disability twelve years after being the Comeback Athlete of the Year at the same annual gala. Each time she goes out and achieves something “heavy,” as her sport says, be that personal or professional, big or small, dream or reality, or equal to someone with two hands or arms, she is proving her equivalence and not her handicap.
Most stories would tail off once the heights of fame die down. Like Hamilton’s own path, Unstoppable goes further. The girl we saw going on talk shows to answer the same questions and accept awards and multiplied praise went on to become her own young woman, marrying her sweetheart Adam Dirks in a whirlwind and becoming a first-time mother to her son Tobias (she would later welcome a second son, Wesley, in 2018). Even with familial victories, the drive for as-yet-unattained athletic accomplishments puts Bethany on towards a list of goals that comprise this cinematic observation.
LESSON #2: GO OUT AND SHOW PEOPLE — For over a decade, Bethany Hamilton stood as a impressive example of survival. She lived through a near-death experience to continue a life. She could have stopped right there and been done. Instead, Bethany wanted to do better and continue the possible path of a professional surfer. Through the risks and new responsibilities, Bethany put herself out there to either succeed or fail. She called it a reminder to all competitors that she’s for real. Viewers will look at this and marvel that a nursing mom months after giving birth, is out there schooling teenagers on the curls and pipes. Who do you know in the same womanly situation does all this and still makes time to write books, make appearances, and lead a charity program for other injured children? Then, do all that with one arm.
As a big screen experience, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable has a drive to match this second lesson. It is out to show people this remarkable and special person, inside and out, as she cuts through all of the sound and fury of ocean waves and unexpected stardom. The Kris Bowers musical score and the soaring drone, helicopter, and action cam cinematography is eye-popping for the silver screen. Still and matching her Hollywood biopic, the soulfulness of Bethany Hamilton is the reason to watch this film. Her earnest thankfulness and her indomitable will are greater than the oceanic wonders.