It’s been 30 years since 22-year-old Terry Fox, a Canadian athlete who had one leg amputated below the knee in a cancer fight he ultimately lost, attempted to run from coast to coast, from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Vancouver, British Columbia, in order to raise money for research. In Canada, his story is well-known, as is his foundation, which has accumulated about $500 million in donations to date; late in Into The Wind, Steve Nash and Ezra Holland’s moving hour-long tribute to him, Fox’s biographer Leslie Scrivener talks about him as part of the national character, representing the “grittiness” of a country that doesn’t have a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela. His story won’t be new to many Canadians, I would guess, and Nash and Holland’s telling isn’t particularly revelatory as a piece of filmmaking. But it’s the mother of all inspirational stories, a legendary-but-true journey that deserves to be passed along from one generation to another.
Nash and Holland keep things simple: Talking heads and archival footage, with some simple reenactments thrown in for the sake of illustration. Yet the talking heads open up very generously to the camera—it probably helped to have Nash, the premier point guard in the NBA and a national hero in his own right, involved in the project—and the footage of Fox ambling across the country at a marathon-a-day pace, in between various speeches and receptions, speaks beautifully for itself. Fox had been the subject of two TV movies—one produced by HBO (1983’s The Terry Fox Story) that his family didn’t like and another (2005’s Terry) produced for the CTV that they endorsed—but there’s no substituting the raw power of the original footage or the people involved in supporting and promoting the run. Kleenex doesn’t cut it; this movie requires a mop.
Given the enormity of what was ultimately accomplished, Fox’s Marathon Of Hope began quite humbly, with distressingly little press coverage: With only a smattering of reporters on hand, Fox dipped his leg into the Atlantic, then headed off into the Newfoundland cold, trailed in a van by his buddy Doug Alward. Traveling from east to west into an oft-gusty headwind—hence the title—Fox initially garnered spotty publicity and only a slow trickle of donations. But that trickle became a flood by the time he reached Ontario, and as the film reveals, the added attention was both invigorating and a serious burden, as the demand for appearances started to consume what had turned into an aimless, roundabout, inconsistent run. Nash and Holland underline Fox’s marathon with entries from his diary (read by Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch, also a Canadian) and flashbacks that fill in his backstory. At the heart of his effort were his experiences in the cancer ward, where he witnessed children dying of the disease while he was undergoing radiation and rehab. He would succumb, too: After 143 days and 3,339 miles, Fox was forced to end his run after the cancer had spread to lemon- and golfball-sized masses on either side of his lungs.
In the sabermetrics age, when stats have done a lot (in mostly a good way) to poke holes in the idea that intangibles like effort and “heart” have an impact on results, it’s refreshing to be reminded of how much of a role sheer will has in how a person performs. In that respect, Into The Wind has much in common with the 30 For 30 doc The Birth Of Big Air, which was about another athlete, BMX legend Mat Hoffman, who stubbornly refused to listen to anyone’s advice in his narrow pursuit of a extreme sporting goal. Fox was a more temperamental figure, and though Nash and Holland give some mention to Fox's darker moments, particularly in his complex relationship with Alward, they’re probably right to deemphasize them. For one, the stress on Fox’s body and mind is impossible to imagine, and it makes sense that the people closest to him felt the brunt of his pain and exhaustion. But more to the point, Fox’s endeavor really was transcendent and beautiful, and it would be unreasonably narrow to overstate his flare-ups for the sake of it.
Fox’s extraordinary endurance—not just the running across 3,339 miles on a 1980 prosthetic as cancer spread through his body, but the marathon of public appearances, too—has to put this feat among the very greatest in sports history. He brought a country together. He inspired countless legions. His foundation continues to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the most hardened cynics should allow themselves to be moved by it.
• There’s only so much that can be accomplished in 50 minutes, but I’d have liked to have seen a little follow-up on the reporter who claimed that Fox had skipped Quebec. But that maybe opens up another front, given the tensions and identity issues that exist between Quebec and the rest of Canada. It’s a touchy subject: Just ask Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
• It isn’t possible to do anything related to Canada without Douglas Coupland’s involvement.
• Anyone make it through this without getting choked up? Is it possible?