Rise -- Film Review

PALM SPRINGS -- Beneath its layers of schmaltzy cheerleading for a sport that's hardly unsung, Rise is a heartfelt tribute to a dream team of skaters who died in a 1961 plane crash.

 

Bearing the U.S. Figure Skating imprimatur, this ode to the modern lineage of American ice champions amps the boosterism to an unnecessary degree. But with a collection of skating stars tracing the generational connections, and explaining in very personal terms how the perished athletes inspired them, the documentary, a world-premiere selection at the Palm Springs festival, packs an emotional punch.

From the glammed-up talkshow-style set where five skaters discuss their work, and that of their forebears, to the obtrusive score and inspirational pop songs, the glossy film feels scaled for the small screen, a la Olympic-related programming. Insight and emotion push through, though, in the give-and-take among Brian Boitano, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Michelle Kwan, and in the talking-head reminiscences of earlier medalists and champs as well as friends and relatives of the deceased -- some still grappling with survivors' guilt.

Archival footage of members of the '61 U.S. Figure Skating Team, in all its scratchy black-and-white glory, provides potent evidence of the talent that was lost when Sabena Flight 548crashed in Brussels, killing everyone on board. Among those en route to the World Championships in Prague was the ultra-charismatic Douglas Ramsay, only 16, who was touted as "the next Dick Button."

The film's directors, twins Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters, demonstrate a special sensitivity to the two pairs of sisters who were on that flight: Sherri and Steffi Westerfeld and Maribel and Laurence Owen. Sixteen-year-old Laurence had a pixieish vivacity and an eerie premonition of the afterlife, expressed in a poem read in voiceover by Dakota Fanning.

Patricia Clarkson provides warm readings of letters by Maribel Vinson Owen, Laurence's mother and coach and, by all accounts, a force of nature -- an intellectual with an avant-garde streak, a ground-breaking journalist and the holder of the most titles in U.S. women's figure skating history, tied only by Kwan. She died with her daughters. But through her surviving students -- Gold Medal winner Evan Lysacek's coach, for one -- her passionate work lives on.

Even in scripted passages that they deliver direct to camera, the latter-day medalists clearly feel a profound debt to their predecessors. On a practical level, both Fleming and Hamilton benefited from the Memorial Fund, established soon after the devastating accident to help promising young skaters. But the legacy is at least as much about the artistry and expressiveness that make figure skating so watchable, even for the casual fan, and which the film, at its best, celebrates without to-do. As Fleming, who was 12 at the time of the crash, notes with understatement, "Our sport is very revealing."

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
A U.S. Figure Skating presentation of a Lookalike Prods. film
With: Brian Boitano, Frank Carroll, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Michelle Kwan
Director-producers: Lisa Lax, Nancy Stern Winters
Screenwriter: Maggie Monteith
Director of photography: Scott Duncan
Production designer: Cassandra Boyd
Music: Peter Calandra
Editor: Ray Conley
No MPAA rating, 76 minutes

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