No matter how many times you hear the story of Bethany Hamilton, the U.S. professional surfing icon whose left arm got bitten off by a tiger shark when she was 13, it exerts an emotional power that can’t be denied. At this point, however, the story is so familiar that it has taken on the quality of a larger-than-life American parable of tragedy and faith and perseverance and triumph. It’s been told on talk shows, on sports TV, in celebrity media, in Hamilton’s 2004 memoir, “Soul Surfer,” and in the not-bad Hollywood biopic that was made from it. So when you watch “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,” a documentary that recaps Hamilton’s life in compelling fashion without adding anything of special novelty or depth (though much of the surfing footage is spectacular), it can feel like you’re seeing a perfectly fine devotional sports biography that doesn’t elevate the saga it’s telling to the next level.
I’m not suggesting there’s a “dark side” to Bethany Hamilton that isn’t being revealed here. Yet the film’s tone — 99 minutes of inspirational sweetness and light, plus a whole lot of defiance and victory — isn’t so much suspect as it is, at this point, a bit limited. You get to see Hamilton at work and at play (which, for her, are the same thing), and she’s such a plucky, upbeat femme-jock of few words that she never fails to come off as a driven but saintly striver. With her sunwashed platinum-blonde hair and lower jaw that juts out in determination, she’s like Ann Coulter if Ann Coulter were a nice person. Yet I wish “Unstoppable” revealed something about Hamilton I didn’t know from seeing her on “Oprah.”
The story of how she lost her arm, and recovered, has always been such an awesome lesson in facing down adversity that the film’s director and cinematographer, Aaron Lieber, doesn’t even try to find an original angle on it; and maybe there isn’t one. We see news flashbacks to Oct. 31, 2003, the day that Hamilton was attacked by a tiger shark off the coast of Kauai. We see a shot of her junior surfboard being held up with a clean shark bite out of the middle of it. “It was pretty heavy,” recalls her mom, in what sounds like the ultimate understatement, until she adds, “but I was so thankful she was alive!”
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We see footage of Bethany in the hospital, shortly after the calamity, and beneath her dazed demeanor she has the grace to say, “I’m glad it was me and no one else out there” — by which she means her surfing bestie Alana Blanchard. “I’d just rather have it be me than Alana,” she says, “because I love her so much.” That’s a profound thought for a teenager to offer from her recovery bed, because what it expresses is that Bethany Hamilton loved something more than herself. Maybe it was Alana, or Christ, or surfing, or simply the life outside herself (or all of the above). And that’s what saved her.
It was assumed that her surfing career was over, but within days she voiced concrete hopes of surfing again with one arm. We see a TV interviewer ask, “Do you think you’re going to surf again?” “I think?” she says, incredulous. “I know I’m going to surf again.” She was back on her board four weeks later. Since she wasn’t able to duck dive to get out to the big waves, her father installed a special handle on her surfboard that enabled her to duck dive. It wasn’t long before she won the Nationals, redefining bravery — and talent — in surfing. By 14, she had become a media darling, with appearances on everything from the talk shows to “The Teen Choice Awards.” She visited Iraq War soldiers in the hospital and appeared in “Dolphin Tale 2.” And she became a poster girl for the Evangelical movement, since faith was such a crucial element of her story.
All of this takes up the first 45 minutes of “Unstoppable.” And then? Then the film shifts to the adult Bethany, her cataclysm far behind her, as she competes for the world title in 2015, just four months after her son, Tobias, was born. As a new mother, she says that for a while she tried but failed to devote herself to surfing as consumingly as it demanded. Yet nothing deters Bethany, and nothing deters “Unstoppable” from returning to its shiny narrative of triumph. After a major competition loss, she is given the wild-card slot in a contest at Fiji, and there’s a training/surfing sequence — a “Rocky” montage — set to M83 performing “Oblivion,” which sounds like “Take My Breath Away” with less synth and more God. We get to see her training techniques (running under water, riveting back and forth on her back on a birth ball). And the imagery of Bethany surfing is breathtaking: tucking into the barrel, cascading down waves of such enormity that they’re like cliffs of water. “Unstoppable” starts as a tale of transcending tragedy, but it ends up where almost every other surfing documentary does, at that place where the majesty of surfing — the Zen of it, the deathly beauty of it — becomes all.