Film Review: United Airlines / Tribeca’s “Destination: Team USA”

 

A unique collaboration between a major U.S. airline and a film studio has resulted in an exquisitely-shot documentary about five American athletes hoping to compete at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  Wisely forging ahead with subjects from less-heralded sports in the United States, “Destination: Team USA” hints at the potential end result, but focuses more on the journey.

The story weaves between the lives of five former medalists and late bloomers – Andrea Duke (marathon), Dartanyon Crockett (judo), Abby Johnston (diving), Ibtihaj Muhammad (fencing) and Cam F. Awesome (boxing) – who are all interesting personalities in their own right without their athletic abilities.  Duke is a 37-year-old single mother-of-two in San Antonio squeezing practice runs around errands and appointments.  The legally-blind Crockett, a self-taught saxophonist, revisits the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Cleveland where he grew up.  Johnston is a medical student at Duke University researching heart disease.  Awesome (formerly Lenroy Thompson) is an ebullient personality who mentors a 13-year-old in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  New Jersey native Muhammad walks down her path as a black Muslim.

Although the hour-plus film could have been broken down into five shorts, each focusing on one subject, this approach would have de-emphasized the literal and figurative mileage accumulated en route to the athletes’ cumulative, shared goal.  (Let’s face it: product placement was inevitable with United Airlines as a sponsor for Team USA and this film.)  Footage from places like Seoul, Rio de Janeiro and Paris add a deceptive glamour to the grind, but thankfully this is forgotten once the camera turns its attention to practice sessions and preliminary qualifying events that mostly escape the glare of mainstream media.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these athletes make it or not; they’re already achieving feats that many of us mere mortals can only dream of.

“Destination: Team USA” made its premiere on United Airlines flight 408 last week between Newark and Chicago.  It will be available for in-flight viewing on United flights as part of the United Private Screening entertainment package beginning July 1.