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Veterans race with help from Prince Harry

“Not everyone agrees on what qualifies as a just war,” Prince Harry says in his Netflix documentary series about the Invictus Games. “But I think we can all agree on the damage war has done to so many people.”

He launched the games almost a decade ago specifically for seasoned players struggling with these physical and mental effects, and the five-part “Heart of Invictus” follows different opponents from around the world as they train for months, including a Ukrainian doctor captured by Russia. troops in the middle of filming and finally participation in the games in the Netherlands last year. (The 2023 games start this week in Düsseldorf, Germany.)

The selection process is based on who needs support and structure most, rather than athletic ability. Participating in games means that opponents “focus on an intent and a goal,” says Harry, “to keep the mind busy, work the mind and flex the muscles, rather than sitting there worrying about the event.” past. To me, that’s the biggest part of the job.”

A wheelchair rugby player from England is appointed captain of his team, but he is unsure. He is not worried about physical difficulties. “But mentally I” – he pauses – “I don’t know how to speak in front of people. With people. I can’t stand in front of the crowd and talk to them. I tend to isolate myself.” When her coach asked, “I had no idea why anyone was considering me.”

A pretty lovable cyclist who lost his hands after being electrocuted talks about the disability-related culture in his hometown of South Korea. People with disabilities “live their lives indoors,” he says. “They hide themselves.” Games are a source of motivation for him to do the opposite.

The US Navy veteran’s right arm was amputated a few years ago. To compete in archery, he holds the bow with one hand and pulls it back with his teeth. Its purpose is firm and correct. But their thoughts are racing. He is a charismatic bundle of energy and still suffers from considerable nerve pain from his injury, but also carries memories of an abusive childhood that shaped his outlook on life.

Gabriel

These are poignant stories of people who exposed and made public the vulnerabilities they once kept secret, and they are worth telling. Even with these features alone, the series is successful.

But things get more complicated when the focus is on the aforementioned doctor, Yuliia “Taira” Paievska. He has sleek, short blonde hair and a stinging sense of humor and a personality that stands out with a manly demeanor. His conditions are different from the others in the series. It’s still a few months into the Russian invasion when filming begins, but he’s seeing where things are going. “I need Invictus to rehabilitate myself,” she says. “But the war does not allow us to relax. It doesn’t allow us to start a normal life.”

His story is the most complex and we take a brief but meaningful look into his life. It’s inhumane to take Paievska’s fate as a spoiler, but it was widely reported in 2022 and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s worth investigating beforehand.

The athletes in Invictus are veterans. Members of the Ukrainian team are a notable exception. They are all active-duty service members, and the games are a short while away from that. Paievska is held captive in Russia during the games, so her adult daughter goes to her place to give interviews in hopes of her release and raise concerns about her mother’s safety. It’s a grueling and difficult experience for him, and it’s heartbreaking to watch. Audiences surround her cheering as she swallows the bile of anxiety.

The head of the Ukraine team is also visibly stressed (from what’s going on in the country) but he’s trying to hold it together. Sad. Weeks ago, during a Zoom meeting with the organizers of the games, there was a bombardment and he abruptly logged out.

“I hope they feel welcome,” says Harry about the team. “I hope they feel refreshed and energized because at the end of these games they will have to return to the war zone. This worries me and it bothers me. There is very little we can do about it other than make sure they have the most exciting experience.”

Julia

There’s an intimacy of soul here, but “Heart of Invictus” is, by mistake, traditional. We spend a few minutes with each person before moving on to the next stage; a mix of talking head interviews and footage at home or in the gym. It’s a tried-and-true approach that allows the series to combine several stories in each episode and gain momentum as it progresses. But the filmmaking behind “Heart of Invictus” doesn’t feel very specific. There is an immediacy to the stories, but that is almost in spite of the way they were filmed.

Sometimes the best thing a documentary filmmaker can do is get out of the way. However, the series from director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara lacks style and thematic. needs more opinions behind their good intentions. It can get a little messy and dig under the surface. Instead, it has the look and speed of countless other Netflix documentary projects put together quickly. If you reduce it to 20 minutes, it can work as an episode in “60 Minutes”. Publishers really need to give more leeway and opportunity to filmmakers with sharper creative instincts than we’re seeing right now.

In the end, the games have a dramatic impact on the people featured here. They put themselves there and enjoyed the friendship and HE the experience seems to have left them something tangible.

“For a long time, I always tried to get away from myself,” says one of the veterans, looking out over the horizon at dusk. “I’ve spent a lot more time in the future, a lot more time in the past, and short moments in the present. But now I am at a crossroads from which I cannot escape forever.”

“Heart of Invictus” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: netflix

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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