"This is not a midlife crisis," 51-year-old John Zeigler insists. "I see this as a wonderful adventure." But when the this in question is a 3,000-mile rowboat race across the Atlantic Ocean, it's hard not to speculate about his motivation. Zeigler's teammate, 41-year-old Tom Mailhot, shares Zeigler's determination, not to mention his daddy issues as Row Hard, No Excuses is quick to point out, both men feel they have something to prove to their respective fathers (perhaps by coincidence, the doc's director, San Francisco's Luke Wolbach, coproduced the film with his father). After a failed hockey career and an early exit from college, Mailhot is dead set on rowing his way to victory: "It's important to me to finish what I've said I'm going to do."
But back up a sec. Yeah, I said 3,000 miles, all the way from the Canary Islands to Barbados. The Atlantic Rowing Challenge is no joke, with duos spending 50 to 100 days at sea in hand-built boats that contain all of their food and other supplies. It also requires $19,000 in entry fees, not to mention time away from jobs and families. "This is really a mind game," one of the other participants notes; the race draws a colorful, international crowd of serious athletes who, necessarily, are all a little nuts. At least, that's what Zeigler and Mailhot discover once they're adrift on the ocean: close quarters shared between "a perfectionist and a bull" draw subterranean personality conflicts into the boiling sun; the task of rowing, rowing, rowing can cause inconceivably bizarre injuries (including a tremendous butt rash that nearly cripples one of the men); and transcendent moments, when they finally come, can involve some mighty trippy hallucinations.
Row Hard, No Excuses relies quite a bit on video-diary footage shot by the men, and as the days stretch on the film's themes of competition, masculinity, and no matter how in shape these dudes are aging come into undeniable focus. Similar in some ways to Touching the Void (2003), Row Hard is especially effective in illustrating how extreme physical conditions can lay bare a person's true self; the race also helps both men gain new appreciation for their lives on dry land. The press notes specifically ask reviewers not to reveal how the men fare in the race so I won't but even as it approaches, the finish line seems less important than Row Hard's deeper message of self-improvement by any means necessary.
After seeing the muscle-bound geezer posing in the promo photo for The Bodybuilder and I, you might be surprised to hear the film is pretty similar to Row Hard, No Excuses. Made by Canadian Bryan Friedman, it is ostensibly about Friedman's father, Bill, a 59-year-old who found his way into the competitive bodybuilding world after a self-esteem-crushing second divorce. But Bryan, who spews some unnecessarily literal voice-over, quickly lets us know he never liked his father because Bill was basically AWOL for Bryan's entire life; he also finds Bill's new pursuit utterly ridiculous. After witnessing Pops bake under a tanning lamp, Bryan muses, "Here's a guy who could spend so much time and energy on a bizarre hobby but who could never spend any time and energy on a relationship with his own son."
It soon becomes clear that The Bodybuilder and I is more about the I than anything else. Oh, you get well-oiled, senior-discount-qualifying beefcakery, but you have to sit through some major family drama to get there. Still, the circumstances are so oddball (seriously would you want to see your estranged dad in a Superman Speedo?) and Bryan Friedman so unflinchingly honest about his misery that the film's shortcomings are eventually overcome.