“Flatline To Finish Line” is a totally Ironman-centric documentary that is at times both massively uplifting and a huge freaking bummer—definitely a film that’s worth seeing, regardless of your IM tattoo status.
Lately there seems to be a spate of triathlon movies rising to the surface. Four months ago, Triathlete Editor-in-Chief Erin Beresini stumbled upon a floating turd in the form of “Run To Me”—a disastrously tone-deaf attempt by Lifetime to (finally?) try to cash in on this whole triathlon thing. Clearly, no one involved in this movie spent any time speaking to an actual triathlete, but then again Lifetime sometimes sets a pretty low bar anyway.
A month later, Erin hit cinematic paydirt when she watched another fictional triathlon movie aptly named, “TRI.” In her review, she called it “the award-winning, feel-good triathlon film of the year [that] gets our sport right.” So at least we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.
In a departure from the fictional front, last April we saw the release of yet another triathlon film—this time based entirely on real triathletes. Available on Amazon Prime now, with limited release in theatres last summer, “Flatline to Finish Line” goes far in showing the transformative power of our sport for those who have struggled with heart disease. Directed, produced and starring David Watkins, the film centers around a group of heart disease survivors and their lives as they prepare for Ironman Arizona in 2012.
“Flatline to Finish Line” opens with some particularly graphic footage of Watkins’ own heart surgery, while he explains the circumstances surrounding his trip to the operating room. As a former high school football player, Watkins was diagnosed with heart disease in his early 30s—ironically when he began running with his wife. During surgery to repair a faulty heart valve, Watkins takes a turn for the worse, and he is considered dead for five minutes; his family is called to his side for their last words.
Fortunately, Watkins survives, and post-recovery, he finds that training for an Ironman helps get him through the dark moments to give him some form of meaning. Early on, he very poignantly asks himself, “What’s my legacy?”
Without overtly saying it, Watkins’ legacy becomes gathering a group of similar heart disease survivors called “Ironheart” and working through their recoveries with Ironman acting as the glue that holds them all together.
There’s Ryan Leong, a triathlete with a condition nicknamed “stone heart.” Leong’s version of heart disease—ischemic myocardial contracture—causes his heart muscle to slowly calcify and harden. The narrator tells us that Leong is in an inverse situation to most of the other Ironheart members—while the exercise could end up stressing most of their hearts and kill them, exercise is actually the thing keeping Leong alive. The film tells us he is literally racing for his life.
There’s Adam Knight, one of the younger members who had numerous surgeries as a child and again as an adult. He had never done more than a sprint triathlon before agreeing to train for Ironman Arizona. Knight acts as the perfect foil to the gung-ho attitude of many of the other characters—he doesn’t really like the training or the pain it inflicts.
There’s also Jim Oldfield, a former pack-a-day couch potato who says he always expected to die of a heart attack. When the heart attack came—and he survived—he was forced to figure out what to do next. While Oldfield had yet to finish an Ironman, he had tried five times, and the film follows his quest toward that line at Ironman Arizona.
Much of the first half of “Flatline” is basically very engaging, and the stories of the characters are inspiring enough. However, up until the final third, there is nothing particularly unique about this film. A viewer could expect a gradually uplifting crescendo that predictably sees the athletes mostly reach all of their goals in classic Ironman-Mike-Reilly fashion.
However everything changes suddenly, and without giving away any spoilers, the movie takes a very dark, real and very sad turn. As someone who has watched their fair share of Ironman World Championship telecasts, I thought I was hardened to any emotional reaction elicited by a triathlon program, but “Flatline to Finish Line” throws a necessary dose of reality into the mix with a big curveball that I didn’t see coming at all.
While the movie ends on a mostly uplifting note, the point isn’t necessarily that “people can overcome anything through sports,” but rather that life is real and hard and sometimes we can have our NBC moment, but not always.
The production values on “Flatline” are impressively high, and while it seems like a little too much time is spent on Watkins’ own story, the film does a great job overall. This movie is perfect for anyone searching for a very real emotional rollercoaster stitched on top of a triathlon quilt. While “Flatline” may not necessarily inspire you to do an Ironman if you have a chronic condition (though it could!), it will certainly make you hug your loved ones a little bit tighter afterwards.
Watch a preview below: