Into the Wind Paints a Fine Picture of a Great Canadian Underdog
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 16, 2015, on our old website Sound On Sight. Thirty-nine years ago today Terry Fox passed away following a long battle with cancer, so we decided to rerun this review.
At one point in the ESPN Films documentary Into the Wind, one of the interviewees says that Canada rallied behind Terry Fox because Canada lacked heroes like him; “We never had a Martin Luther King, a Nelson Mandela,” she says. But it might just as easily be said that America or South Africa never had a Terry Fox, that rare person who became a legend despite fighting a losing battle against long odds.
Fox was a college student hoping for basketball stardom when he developed cancer in his right leg. Doctors amputated the leg above the knee, but Fox did not abandon his athletic desires, and eventually, he conceived of the idea to run across Canada on a specially-designed artificial leg to raise money for cancer research charities. The film’s title refers to the fact that Fox ran across Canada from east to west; most people who attempt to traverse Canada on foot do the opposite. Shortly after passing 3,300 miles, Fox’s cancer recurred and he died in 1981 at the age of 22.
When ESPN began to arrange the concept of its 30 for 30 series — celebrating the network’s 30th anniversary with 30 documentaries about stories that took place after the network was created — Canadian native and 2-time NBA MVP Steve Nash was drawn to the story of Fox, which he had grown up hearing about. The documentary, which Nash co-directed with Ezra Holland, is aimed at making ESPN viewers understand why every Canadian of Nash’s generation feels the same way.
The movie combines archival footage of Fox, talking-head interviews of his friends and family, and re-enactments narrated by Taylor Kitsch reading entries from Fox’s diary (Kitsch, a youth hockey star in Canada who was making his name on Friday Night Lights as this movie was being assembled, surely had some experience with young athletes experiencing tragedy). None of the three visual styles is particularly revolutionary if you’ve ever seen a documentary before. But this is one documentary where the visual style is unimportant.
What draws a viewer in to this film is the simple power of Terry Fox’s story. By all accounts, Fox was such an all-Canadian kid that it almost seems sacrilegious to hear him portrayed by a professional actor in voiceover. Much of the archival footage was shot from a distance, making Fox look skinny and small compared to the Canadian countryside. It’s easy to find a “there but for the grace of God, go I” aspect to his story, such that Nash and Kitsch alike could see themselves in Fox despite being separated by a generation.
It helps that the Terry Fox story grew naturally in the pre-cable news era. Though ESPN is older than the events portrayed here, it’s only by a year or two, and the network did not have the resources to cover the story in depth. Instead, the story simply gained traction in the Canadian media, growing a little bit with each retelling, until the national stations could not help but take notice. The media reports used in this film are all from Canadian networks, nearly thirty years old at the time the film was assembled, and couldn’t have been easy to gather together.
Nash and Holland take care not to praise Fox too much, which is always a danger with this sort of documentary. Fox’s first traveling companion on his run was his childhood friend Doug Alward, and it was only natural for the punishing pace of the run to build the sort of tension that only best friends can have with each other. We are not spared from the petulant Terry Fox, the frustrated Terry Fox, and the immature Terry Fox (“Apparently they don’t speak English. Maybe they don’t get cancer,” he groused about the small number of donations amongst the Quebecois). In fact, the only real weakness of the film is that Kitsch’s stoic voice doesn’t do much to sell those aspects of Fox’s run. The real difficulties of the run all come out through interviews with Alward, and in some way, they humanize Fox even more; who would not be emotionally punished by running across Canada on one leg?
The best choice that Nash and Holland made might be the smallest one: keeping the natural sound of the Fox home movies. Terry Fox’s labored breathing, the simple staccato tap of his one-legged running gait, the wind striking the microphone with the same force that it would have struck Terry Fox in the face: all of it puts the incredible challenge that Terry Fox faced on display. This film uses graphic animation over a map of Canada to show how far Fox had traveled, but no map paints the picture as well as the sound of his labored breathing over a highway at dusk, empty save for just one man.
When ESPN anchor Stuart Scott spoke at the final ESPY award show before his death from cancer earlier this year, he said, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live.“ In the end, Terry Fox beat cancer by example, raising more than $500 million since his death for cancer research. But beyond that, Terry Fox beat cancer by making himself a national hero, despite history’s tendencies to reward only the winners and the survivors. Anyone could be the underdog against cancer; Into the Wind illustrates how Terry Fox taught every Canadian to win.
- Mark Young