Hot Docs 2013 Capsule Review: Bending Steel

Bending Steel

Dave Carrol’s ‘Bending Steel’ exists in the same inspirational cinematic sandbox as Rocky and Rudy. Sure, strongman feats like horseshoe twisting and telephone book tearing might fall into the fringe category of what we traditionally define as ‘sport’, but strongmen are most definitely athletes. Their success depends upon their physical prowess, a strong mental constitution, and a natural ability to entertain a crowd.

Chris Shoeck has what it takes to be a professional strongman but he still struggles to prove himself to his peers and his parents, who are seemingly indifferent to his unusual ability. He and his mentor Chris Rider work towards bringing a traditional strongman show back to Coney Island, giving Shoeck a defined goal. Throughout the film we watch him bend various metals with ease, but it’s his struggle to bend a two inch bar — a metaphorical stand-in for his self-doubt and fears — which symbolizes his journey. Shoeck also attempts to conquer his fear of crowds by workshopping his act at open mic nights, resulting in a particularly awkward first performance. I loved watching his peers evaluate the particulars of his stage act, pointing out the various details that only a professional strongman would identify as problematic (the angle at which he stands, holding the successfully bent item up to the crowd, etc.) When the film finally reaches its Coney Island climax, you can’t help but root for Shoeck in the tradition of cinemas great underdog sports dramas.

Carrol and cinematographer Ryan Scafuro handle Shoeck’s story with a respect for cinematic craft, telling a beautifully shot, emotionally rich character piece that avoids the grandiose mythologizing that other filmmakers might give in to. ‘Bending Steel’ is a sincere and poignant look at a unique sub-culture who’s success is measured in pounds per square inch. — Jay C.