Although there is plenty of flexing and grunting, Bending Steel is a surprisingly soft and intimate story about a 43-year-old New York man who decides to become a sideshow strongman at Coney Island. Certainly there are scenes when the strongmen straighten out horseshoes and, veins bulging, smash nails into pieces of wood (without the use of a hammer). But mostly it is a documentary about a small topic that slyly plays out on massive themes—which is to say that this is an unexpectedly beautiful and touching film about growing up, a movie remarkably wide-reaching in spite of the acutely specific topic and the painfully introverted main character, Chris Schoeck.
On the surface, Schoeck is truly unremarkable. He isn't some bulking and hulking muscle man and, really, is more about determination than superhuman strength. But that is what makes his story so accessible. He is a painfully lonely man, with an odd obsession—to bend a two-inch bar of steel in front of an audience.
What also makes the documentary remarkable is that the director, David Carroll, for six years was a cinematographer for the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart." And while that TV show is the No. 1 purveyor of irony and sardonic humor, Carroll only shows respect and patient compassion for his main character, which translates to a candid, sincere and uplifting documentary (thankfully absent any of that Disney feel-good sheen).
As with any sports movie, Schoeck must evolve from his first bumblings—in this case, an awkward stage presence—and must have a nemesis—in this case, his two-inch-thick bar of steel. While those obstacles may not seem as gripping as beating up Apollo Creed or outscoring the foot-taller and better-funded basketball team, these challenges prove to be more than engrossing enough to serve as the perfect foils for Schoeck.
About midway through the movie, Schoeck, who trains in a storage unit, tapes up a cardboard sheet with a dozen faces he has traced on to it, as an audience that he practices addressing. He videotapes these sessions, and the footage provides intimate and voyeuristic glimpses better than any hyped-up Jersey reality show. When Schoeck finally delivers a firm and confident soliloquy to his imagined audience, a rousing speech that would make P.T. Barnum blush, I cheered as loudly as I did when I was 8 years old and Rocky Balboa won his title match. This is truly the right stuff.
The accomplishments may be small in the scope of world history, but the filmmakers do a wonderful job of capturing Schoeck's small, subtle and very human changes, resulting in a sweetly told and beautifully filmed story about acceptance and self-confidence that is as gripping as any big-budget Disney sports film.
The 10-year anniversary of the BendFilm Festival is fast approaching, a weekend celebration that brings some of the nation's best independent films and filmmakers to our theaters. During the next month, the Source staff will be reviewing docs, shorts and feature films in writhing anticipation of the weekend-long festival. BendFilm takes place Oct. 10-13. For the full festival lineup and to purchase tickets, visit bendfilm.org and stay tuned to the Source for our continuing film reviews.