Road to Recovery
‘Swingman’ Has a Story to Tell, But Does the Filmmaker Tell It?
- By Elisha Bury
- Mar 01, 2013
Capt. Marshall Allen at the scene of the bicycle accident that left him paralyzed. Photos courtesy of Thin Line Film Festival.
Watching the movie “Swingman,” a documentary about Marshall Allen, a Fort Worth, Texas, firefighter, is like looking out a car window while driving 60 mph. At times, the scenes are beautiful; at times, the scenes are bleak. But regardless of what you see, those split-second snapshots of life are always blurry—they always leave you with an incomplete picture.
The main problem with the film is that the filmmaker drives too fast. Instead of taking his time down a scenic country road, he tries to hit five states in 53 minutes. With that strategy, you can’t get close enough to your subject to tell the story.
Even when speeding down a highway, you pass road signs and mile markers. “Swingman” has none of these things. The story lacks structure and connections. The scenes hold promise of interesting discussion, but fail to deliver on multiple levels.
I say that not to take away from the story of Allen, a gargantuan man who towers above 6 feet and in his glory days as a powerlifter weighed more than 300 pounds. Even as a lower-level quadriplegic, his presence is still commanding. From the snippets in the movie—or rather despite them—Allen’s spirit shines through. When the filmmaker fails to explain the simplest of scenes or moves too quickly, Allen still comes across as a true warrior who’s finally found some inner peace.
Perhaps the problem is that Allen’s story has trouble fitting into a tiny 53-minute box. Instead of settling on a few stories about Allen, the director tries to tell a little about every single one, and by doing so never asks the hard questions that could take the film to another level. In fact, the filmmaker fails to explain even the simplest of questions.
For example, is Allen a quadriplegic? If you are unfamiliar with spinal cord injury, you might be confused by Allen’s ability to move his shoulders. Allen also wears orthoses on his hands to give him better finger dexterity, but these as well as Allen’s condition are not explained. The audience is left to assume.
Capt. Marshall Allen
In fact, the information provided about quadriplegia is dead wrong. The filmmaker says that quads live only seven years post injury. Although seven years might be a reasonable expectation for someone with a high-level injury, such as someone required to use a ventilator, Allen certainly doesn’t fit into that category. What’s more, even if Allen’s injury were to give him only seven years, the movie didn't clearly define when Allen was injured. Is he past the seven-year mark? Approaching it?
The filmmaker does excel at presenting scenes in which Allen struggles. In fact, the director seems obsessed with showing how hard daily life is for Allen. There’s a scene in downtown Fort Worth in which Allen can’t get his ramp to fold back into his van. He spends several minutes toying with it and eventually abandons the van and rolls on to work.
In another scene, possibly the most poignant of the movie, Allen struggles for a long time to get the tip off a vacuum cleaner hose so that he can vacuum some paper in his office. Then his daughter appears and pulls it off in a second. Allen embraces the situation with humor and says that sometimes he feels like an octopus who’s trying to twist a lid off a jar full of crabs.
“I feel like that octopus all the time,” Allen says.
In some ways, showing Allen’s struggle with his injury has merit. This, at least, is a point: to show the daily life of someone with paralysis. After all, people who don’t know much about disabilities might not understand what it takes to get dressed or how hard it is to use a computer.
Despite the challenge of these everyday tasks, Allen continues to work with the Fort Worth Fire Department, where he serves as the captain of commercial inspections in the Bureau of Fire Prevention. In fact, Allen’s perseverance during these challenging situations and his insistence on continuing to work reveal the kind of person Allen is. He never loses patience or his steady smile. He seems to have a clarity that few inside or outside the chair do. Fortunately, the movie does touch on why.
For most of his life, Allen was clinically depressed, although he didn’t know it. He had a rough upbringing—adopted twice by white families and returned when they found out he was biracial. In addition, the film suggests (though never explains) that Allen’s final adopted family abused him. As a result of his depression, Allen struggled with relationships.
His injury was the reason he finally got the help he needed because all people with SCI are started on anti-depressants.
During the Q&A after the film, Alexandra Allred, author of the book “Swingman” (on which the movie is based), remarked that Allen’s frank discussion about depression has resonated much more with audiences than his spinal cord injury. The subject is taboo among many men because seeking help is considered unmanly, and hearing this very macho man talk so openly about his own dealings with depression makes others want to reach out to him for help.
Throughout the film, Allen maintained that frank, honest demeanor. You get the feeling that there’s not much you can’t ask him. So why didn’t the director ask more?
In fact, I left the theater with more questions than before I entered: What exactly is the point of “Swingman”? Can the filmmaker be trusted? Was the director afraid of Allen? Was he uncomfortable telling a story about disabilities? Did he understand his subject?
I also wanted to know much more about Allen.
When you have all of these questions at the end of a documentary, which is meant to shed light on a subject or topic, you wonder if the director did something terribly wrong. After all, Allen instantly puts you at ease. He’s a jokester. Allen is ready and willing to tell his story. It wouldn't be hard to make an exceptional film about him.
And I hope someone else does.
If you’re interested in Allen’s story, pick up Allred’s book instead of watching this film.
The film, directed and produced by Mark Birnbaum, aired at the Thin Line Film Fest in Denton, Texas, (near Dallas) Feb. 16. Click here to watch the trailer.
Elisha Bury is the editor of The Mobility Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.