Going the Distance, by David Bax
In a time when the line of demarcation between the theater experience and the home viewing one is increasingly blurred, it’s worth noting that differences still exist between films and television, no matter if the difference in screen size is disappearing. I watched Sebastian Dehnhardt’s astonishing new documentary, Klitschko, in my living room but, despite not being an effects heavy tentpole movie, its inherent sense of scope never let me forget that I was watching a feature film, fully taking advantage of that form.
Klitschko begins with a stunning and energizing sequence of a grand arena being prepared for a boxing match. As the ring is set up in the middle of a large and barren floor and as scores of high powered lights seem to move around the room on their own and in unison, we transition into the beginning of the event itself. The impossibly vast stands fill up with cheering spectators and the combatants enter the space flanked by bursts of pyrotechnics timed to the building rhythm of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” By the end of this introduction, you may feel prepared to step into the ring yourself.
The cinematic ambit thus established, the film follows through by being about much more than its premise would suggest. Klitschko details the lives and pugilistic careers of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, Ukrainian brothers who both became professional boxers. Tall and incredibly well-built, the Klitschkos have as long and effective a literal reach in the ring as the film’s figurative thematic one. The film includes such topics as the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl (where their father was employed on the clean-up crew), life behind the Iron Curtain (where, as boys, the brothers idolized Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee even though, for years, martial arts was outlawed in the Soviet Union), the differences between communism and capitalism (when they first travel to America, the now young men are delighted, not appalled, by the garish opulence of a consumerist culture) and, of course, sibling rivalry (the peaks and valleys of their respective careers often fail to line up chronologically, leading to episodes of envy and even estrangement).
Mostly, though, and without any apology in the face of these seemingly loftier subjects, this is a film about boxing. The copious slow-motion footage of the Klitschko brothers fighting, both dealing and receiving numerous wrecking blows, is as beautiful as anything in Raging Bull and all the more visceral because it is thoroughly real. Dehnhardt isn’t satisfied with just the pageantry and glory of the matches, though. He spends an equal amount of time detailing things like training and diet as well as particularizing every aspect of every injury suffered, including Vitali’s eye-area injury that will cause the most seasoned gore-hounds to recoil.
I’ve never known much about boxing but I’ve learned more about it from watching this film than from any other source. Especially well-described is the mental aspect of the sport. Though it’s long been referred to as a “sweet science,” it generally appears, to the layperson, to be little more than men pummeling each other. The Klitschkos though, as Dehnhardt illustrates in ways both subtle and direct, are very intelligent people both in and out of the ring. Both play chess and have various charitable pursuits while Vitali has both a Ph.D and a political career.
The lives of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are not like our lives. They have outpaced normalcy. Fortunately, Sebastian Dehnhardt has recognized this and brought to bear the full force and potential of film to tell their story in the scope it deserves.