'Blood Road': Film Review

Blood Road Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Josh Letchworth
A technically strong but dramatically shaky personal-achievement doc.

Endurance athletes Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen bike the Ho Chi Minh trail in Nicholas Schrunk's doc.

An American athlete decides to bike the Ho Chi Minh trail in Nicholas Schrunk's doc Blood Road, enlisting a Vietnamese cyclist and a support crew in her attempt to visit the site where, when she was 3 years old, her father was shot down on a bombing run in the Vietnam War. Ensuring that his account provides all the lush vistas and vicarious exhaustion expected in such a travelogue, Schrunk is less successful in making Rebecca Rusch's personal motives seem movie-worthy. In fact, some viewers will be made queasy by differentials in wealth and privilege between the athlete and those around her. Though it will likely find enough outdoorsy moviegoers to support a tour of theatrical bookings, most enthusiasts will find the doc on small screens.

Rusch went most of her life not knowing if her father, Air Force Captain Stephen Rusch, even died in the war. The site of his crash in Laos wasn't found until 2003; his remains went unidentified until 2007. In 2015, the celebrated globe-hopping athlete decided to make the crash site the focus of a roughly 1,200-mile cycling trek through Southeast Asia.

She intends to arrive at that rural site by the anniversary of her father's death, a sentimental, arbitrary goal that does little to add drama to the film. Similarly, while the voyage contains grueling sections and some thankless manual labor — like hauling bikes, boats and gear through the dry parts of a river trip — there's never any doubt that Rusch will be able to get from her start in Northern Vietnam to the finish line in Ho Chi Minh City.

What does supply human interest is Rusch's relationship with Huyen Nguyen, a champion Vietnamese cyclist hired to be her translator/partner on the ride. Less driven and more emotionally open than Rusch, Nguyen quietly accepts her sense of mission and attempts to befriend her on their long days pedaling alongside one another.

With onscreen graphics sharp enough for an A-list documentary, the film periodically addresses the history of America's involvement in Vietnam and reads from Stephen Rusch's letters home. As we soar over the cyclists' heads, looking down on earth that was turned to Swiss cheese by American bombing, some viewers may see a moral disconnect here: The film doesn't know what to do with the fact that its object of reverence, Captain Rusch, is responsible for the scars on this land, the maimed people Rebecca Rusch passes on her bike, the unexploded ordinance that still threatens the lives of children at play.

In his letters home, Rusch admitted that he saw no reason for this killing, and had to rationalize dropping bombs and napalm on the Ho Chi Minh trail. As we watch his daughter bike up hills and poke around in other people's yards, one might wonder if a better way of connecting with her absent father might be to put the bike away and help crews clean up the still-lethal mess he left behind.

A title card just before the closing credits suggests she has begun to do something of the sort, starting a cycling-tourist program that helps fund bomb removal. That's praiseworthy. But for most of its running time, Blood Road seems to think one American's emotional closure matters more than the lasting damage done in the countries she has gone to visit.

Production company: Red Bull Media House
Director: Nicholas Schrunk
Screenwriter: Mark Anders
Producer: Sandra Kuhn
Executive producers: Scotty Bradfield, Ben Bryan, Charlie Rosene
Directors of photography: Sean Aaron, David Mavro, Robert J.D. Spaulding
Matt Bowen, Keith Kenniff, Jordan Sudak
Editor: Emad Abi-Hashim

95 minutes