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Review: ‘Strongman’

Meet ‘Stanless Steel’

Above: Stanless Steel of "Strongman."

Zachary Levy makes "Strongman" (opened March 25 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) an old school documentary that puts his subject front and center.

Stanley Pleskun hails from South Brunswick, New Jersey, and he has a special skill. He's extremely strong. He can bend a penny with his fingers or lift a 10-ton truck using only his legs. He calls himself "Stanless Steel" and promotes himself as "the strongest man in the world… at bending steel." He dreams of making a career out of his strongman skills but so far nothing major has come from it. He makes an occasional TV appearance and talks at schools or birthdays but true fame has eluded him. Maybe that's because at fortysomething he seems a bit past his prime and because his feats, like his tagline, require some kind of modifier. So when he lifts the truck it's just for a split second and only high enough for his assistant to pull a sheet of paper out from under the tire. His act may not be flashy but Pleskun is persistent.


Trailer: 'Strongman'

Trailer for the documentary "Strongman."

Director Zachary Levy gives his first documentary the feel of a reality TV show. We enter Pleskun's life and end up feeling like a fly on the wall as family drama and career crises play out. Pleskun can come across as a likable lug at times but his career ambitions seem unrealistic, so he can seem a bit pathetic. So we feel bad for him when he goes on a cheesy British variety show where another performer, with a more highly polished act, boasts about his success and $2000 pay checks. But Stanless Steel needs a lot more polishing before he can achieve that kind of professional success. He can't have appearances where his stunt doesn't go off as planned or where the payoff fails to impress the audience.

Pleskun makes his disappointment and frustration quite apparent to us and to his family, especially his girlfriend Barbara. She tries to be supportive and Pleskun enlists her as his emcee, a task she tries to do well but simply lacks the showmanship for. So there are times when Pleskun berates her for not "selling" his brand or his stunt with enough flair. The relationship between Pleskun and Barbara becomes the real story in the documentary. During the good times, they seem well matched and in love. But As Pleskun grows more impatient with his lack of professional progress, he takes out his anger on Barbara who can only take so much. In Levy's close ups of Barbara, we see her quiet devotion slowly fade into a tired and slightly sad realization that she cannot stay with this man she loves.

Barbara is Stanley Pleskun's long suffering girlfriend in "Strongman."

No Props

Above: Barbara is Stanley Pleskun's long suffering girlfriend in "Strongman."

Levy catches some very intimate and not always pleasant moments. At these times you are not sure if you should admire him for the honest emotions he seems to be recording or slightly put off that he is intruding on something so obviously personal. Levy seems to want us to like Pleskun yet he shows an unpleasant side that can be off putting. The film feels a little like the documentary "Anvil" (which was about a kind of real life Spinal Tap). But "Anvil" was able to let us feel the passion of its down on their luck band members and find something endearing about their persistence in the face of so many obstacles. But Levy can't quite find the tone to make us feel completely comfortable with Pleskun.

Sometimes he seems to make Pleskun more of a freak in a sideshow than a person that Levy really wants us to understand and like. In that respect his film is a marked contrast to the recent documentary "Marwencol." That film was about a Mark Hogancamp who had suffered brain damage and created his own form of therapy by creating a 1/6th scale World War II era town in his backyard. But "Marwencol" never lets Hogancamp come across as some oddball. It took an intimate approach that brought us into Hogancamp's world to let us appreciate it. Levy's approach is definitely intimate in the sense of getting his cameras in everyone's face and not flinching. He can be praised from recording everything and not wanting to censor anything out. So there's a calculated sense of objectivity. Yet the choices Levy makes of what to leave in seem to be driven by what makes for the most dramatic moments (fights, disappointment) and he doesn't necessarily let us see what drives Pleskun and why he has pursued this particular career path. That's what "Anvil" and "Marwencol" did so well. They got in close to their subjects, showed them warts and all, but also let us understand the passion that drives them. Levy doesn't quite get us there with his documentary. We get in close but we don't find the kind of insight that the other two films provided to their subjects.

"Strongman" is a solid, no frills documentary that draws its strength from Levy's intense focus on his subject.

Companion viewing: "Marwencol," "Anvil: Story of Anvil," "La Strada"

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Avatar for user 'Hank_k'

Hank_k | March 29, 2011 at 4:06 p.m. ― 5 years, 12 months ago

Beth, you usually hit the nail on the head (yes, Sucker Punch deserved to be punched back) but I think you missed this one. I saw it over the weekend and it couldn't be farther from 'reality show'. Not sure how you saw that--- I saw real people living real lives in ways that were deep and moving. Unlike the junk on TV, there's nothing disposable about them or the storytelling which I thought really insightful about human nature. I've been talking about it since Saturday night. It has stuck with me in ways I can't easily put into words.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 29, 2011 at 7:59 p.m. ― 5 years, 12 months ago

Glad you enjoyed it. Calling it "reality TV" wasn't meant as a slam. It had the feel of TV shows where the camera crew moves in with whoever the subjects are and just follows them around constantly. But I did feel that it was not as strong a doc as the recent MARWENCOL, which presented a similar kind of documentary -- old school, not flashy, total focus on the subject. But I felt MARWENCOL was much more artfully handled and more insightful. STRONGMAN looks like a first feature and shows promise but not a mastery of the format.

I liked it but just wasn't wildly enthusiastic about it. I'm glad that you went out and supported this indie doc and I hope more people will as well.

Thanks for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'Hank_k'

Hank_k | March 30, 2011 at 12:29 a.m. ― 5 years, 12 months ago

I didn't think "Marwencol" and this had that much in common stylistically so it seems a little bit like apples / oranges, but actually felt the other way around. I felt "Marwencol" was an excellent film, but it wasn't a capitol "G" Great film the way "Strongman" was. No knock on "Marwencol" by any stretch, just that this had a depth of theme that was greater and broader. You were somehow watching both a personal drama and feeling like that drama was speaking to larger ideas about the country and society. It's hard to put in words because I don't think it was political exactly, but maybe like the way you feel when you see a play like Death of a Salesman. Maybe a bit of True West came to mind too at times.

Never would have guessed this was a first film at all. I was in it from the get-go and the story unfolded with a real deliberateness. Yes, I think with "Marwencol" the photographs and artwork overlay a polish to it, but I think both films' style were perfectly suited to their subjects. just thinking again now how much some of the "Strongman" images keep staying with me and I would use "masterful" but it's just not in a flashy kind of way. I think it's one of the more interesting films I've seen in a long time.

Anyhow, wanted to say too how great it is that you always post back. Makes reading the blog fun.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | March 30, 2011 at 10:33 a.m. ― 5 years, 12 months ago

Ha! I think this is just one we have to agree to disagree because it seems I felt the exact opposite about each film. I preferred MARWENCOL because I felt it was a better made film and treated its subject as less of an oddball than STRONGMAN. I'm glad you made the effort to see MARWENCOL. I liked STRONGMAN but just not wildly impressed.

And I enjoy the comments too. The more interactive the better. I'm part Italian so I have always loved a good debate or argument so it's even fun when people disagree.

Thanks for commenting.

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