I’m a sucker for a Rocky-style training montage. Plain and simple. There’s just something about multiple exercises cut to jams registering above the 120 BPM mark that gets the blood pumpin’. It’s a tried and true filmmaking instrument I wholly endorse. And if you’re wondering whether the new Bethany Hamilton film, Unstoppable: The Fearless Life of Bethany Hamilton, features a training montage punctuated by a hard-fought accomplishment, spoiler alert: It does. It’s great. For all intents and purposes, we know the ending of this one before it starts.
And that’s a challenge that presses all non-fictional documentaries where the current status of the subject is well known. What, exactly, will the viewer learn?
With Unstoppable, produced, directed, and brought to life by Aaron Lieber, who also produced biopics on pro surfers Lakey Peterson and Brett Simpson, the answer is simple: Bethany Hamilton is just as inspiring and driven as you hoped she might be.
Which isn’t exactly novel. Her name is synonymous with inspiration. But, the way we arrive at that conclusion is noteworthy, and it’s largely attributable to the intimacy and access Lieber has to Hamilton’s life when the cameras are (supposed to be) off. We get a passenger seat on that journey. We see her slice an orange using her foot to hold it in place. We see her holding her baby, Tobias, with one foot to change his diapers – between heats, no less. In that regard, Unstoppable accomplishes what its predecessor, Soul Surfer, the 2011 Hollywood production starring Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, and AnnaSophia Robb, could not. It gets real. Because it has to.
Unstoppable has the benefit and the weighty obligation of piecing Hamilton’s story-to-date together using actual, raw footage from her life. We see Bethany as a brave, confused 13-year old girl sitting in a hospital bed, newly armless, coming to terms with her reality. You can see the struggle of a child working hard to process what just happened on her face. She wears a smile, but she’s confused. Someone off camera asks her what’s next. She replies with a seriousness and understanding that’s painful to hear coming from of a child: “I don’t know.”
From conversations with Lieber, early in the process of making this film, one of the primary intentions was to showcase Bethany’s often-forgotten ability to surf at the highest level on earth. “I just wanted to showcase her as one of the best in the world, and the story evolved from there,” said Lieber. Unstoppable accomplishes this.
But motherhood, possibly the richest thread in the film, was completely unexpected for the Hamilton family and the documentary itself. In fact, it almost halted the production.
“They called me and let me know [Bethany was pregnant], and at that point, none of us knew what we were going to do,” Lieber told The Inertia. “I just let her take a few weeks to figure out if she wanted to move forward or not. She called and said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ I just regrouped and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to follow her pregnancy, and follow her life and see where it leads, not knowing.’ Four years later, I had all this amazing footage.”
Possibly the most novel revelation comes through tracking her progress when compared with her peers’. At one point, Hamilton, quite vulnerably admits that she has at times wondered, “What could I have accomplished if I didn’t lose my arm?”
To that, I would quickly, and without hesitation reply: Much less.
She wonders aloud how her career might have been different in the context of watching her childhood friend Carissa Moore win three world titles. Watching Steph Gilmore win six. Could all of those have been Bethany’s? Considering she managed to win an NSSA National title with one arm, it’s not far-fetched to think so. Unstoppable tells her story, yes, but it also places her athleticism front and center in a way that probably feels fulfilling since that storyline has played second fiddle since her attack on October 31, 2003.
At one point, Hamilton, quite vulnerably admits that she has at times wondered, “What could I have accomplished if I didn’t lose my arm?” To that, I would quickly, and without hesitation reply: Much less.
So she might be right. Maybe she would have been the greatest competitive surfer to walk the planet. But maybe she wouldn’t have. And say she had a few world titles under her belt, would she feel more fulfilled? Would her imprint on society be larger? I can’t answer the former. But to the latter, the answer, objectively, is “No.”
Not to discredit anything Moore or Gilmore have accomplished through their competitive success, but Hamilton has created her own path. One that enables her to have an outsize impact on sports and culture. Eleven-time World Champion Kelly Slater says she occupies “rare air.”
In that respect, it was interesting to see Hamilton’s perspective on the toll that fame and celebrity have taken on her. It’s clear that the line between obligation and opportunity was a thin one for Hamilton as a child. Her delicate relationship with the press and her celebrity status – where she simultaneously appreciated the platform to share her story but resented her simplified representation. She’s not just the shark attack survivor. She’s not just the insanely talented one-armed surfer. She’s a person. With a beating heart. Media rarely offers that nuance. Put simply, a headline cannot. And she’s been the star of many simplified headlines in the fifteen years since surviving a shark attack that catapulted her to a level of fame she never asked for.
But isn’t that an inherent challenge with celebrity and media? Humans thrive on oversimplification so we can quickly make sense of things. We only have time for nuance when it’s convenient. Unstoppable is Bethany Hamilton’s opportunity to tell us who she is.
Ironically, she didn’t stray far from the script others had written for her.
She’s a badass. A cutthroat competitor, a mother, and wife determined to accomplish her goals regardless of what others think. If she decides to do it, she does it.
One of my favorite moments in the film comes when Hamilton beats then-world number one Tyler Wright while competing as a wildcard in Fiji. Hamilton is surfing brilliantly and exits a barrel late in her heat as Wright paddles by on the shoulder. Hamilton essentially spikes a football in Wright’s face – her chin up, chest out, eyes locked on Wright as she kicks out. Her stare is a loaded gun full of vindication and pride. The heavy burden that she’s placed upon herself to prove she can compete among the world’s best evaporates. It’s obvious from her body language. She’s visibly lighter. She just defeated the defending world champion in an official WSL World Tour event. Then she returned to her boat to breastfeed her son, Tobias, between heats. The other (childless, two-armed) competitors looked on in awe, consistently amazed by what this woman can accomplish when she sets her mind to something. Her spirit indomitable.
That’s Bethany Hamilton.
Editor’s Note: This INSPIRED feature is supported by our good friends at Cobian. INSPIRED is an ongoing series where we feature uplifting stories from individuals harnessing the restorative power of the ocean and outdoors.