Traveling carnival sideshows are as vintage nowadays as an Instagram filter. Stepping right up to sneak a peek at the bearded ladies, the sword swallowers and the fire breathers no longer amaze audiences seeking an outrageous spectacle. Especially when that audience lives in an age where a simple Google Image search will elicit the same appeal. But there are those who still practice these vaudevillian acts of yesteryear, hoping to play on the nostalgia of an old-fashioned wonderment, and Chris Schoeck stands among them. Although he may not breathe fire or open wide for a sword, Schoeck does bend steel with his bare hands. In the aptly titled and completely immersive Bending Steel, a documentary selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, director Dave Carroll skillfully captures Schoeck’s journey from basement act to stage performer as he struggles to overcome his self-subscribed limitations and bend his way into the strongman business.

Schoeck is a smaller man than one may expect after seeing the force that his body exerts as he bends rod after rod, horseshoe after horseshoe. His arms don’t bulge to an excessive size that would draw attention at the gym or on the streets of his native New York. He is an introverted man who moves from place to place with his eyes forward, as to not make any unnecessary contact. He is a silent force of strength that is as deceivingly resilient as the pieces of shiny steel he aims to twist beyond recognition.

It is Carroll’s invasive yet intimate approach to Schoeck that is, at first, off-putting in contrast to their intensely private subject. Most of the initial introductions to Schoeck happen deep in his sanctum of mangled metal (aka renovated basement storage closet), where he retreats to train far from the social connections he has denied himself — mostly due to a troubling adolescence of early alcoholism. “I get out of bending steel what most people get out of personal relationships,” firmly states Schoeck. Yet, the director disregards these set boundaries and captures the personal moments with in-his-face shots of Schoeck as he grunts and sweats through the process of bending. The beauty of that direction is how it instills an inspiring payoff as we watch Schoeck mature from the apprehensive subject that pulls away from the camera in that basement to a personable entertainer that embraces the attention.

Much of the conflict standing in Schoeck’s way is the internal battle of finding one’s self-confidence and inner strength in the face of life’s obstacles — themes that are relatable even to those not bending steel in their spare time. To illustrate his struggle, Carroll purposely takes us home to meet Schoeck’s parents, who doubt the legitimacy of their son’s talent and how far it will take him. They question his ability to change his anti-social behavior and capture the attention of the crowd. It is a tragic bit of family dysfunction that noticeably takes its toll on Schoeck, but forces him to push forward.

He finds solace in his new trainer, Chris Rider, a fellow strongman himself who specializes in using his long red hair in various impressive ways — a talent which earns him the name, Hairculese. Soon, Rider becomes the Miyagi to Schoeck’s karate kid, teaching him everything from bending techniques to how to create a persona crowds will latch onto, the latter of which has a learning curve for the anti-social butterfly.

As he powers through, he rubs shoulders with his famous predecessors and eventually finds their advice and welcoming (albeit tight) embrace to be all the support he needs. They even bestow upon him his very own show name: Chris “Wonder” Schoeck. While you may not know the likes of Slim “The Hammer Man” Farman or the late Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, seeing Schoeck’s face light up as he reminisces over their performed feats should be proof enough that they are a big deal. And Carroll is banking on these moments of guidance because, while he is a newcomer to this world, Schoeck is the audiences’ portal into a previously unknown world. Those subtle grins that trace across his face may seem like simple emotion, and Carroll is using them to give authenticity to the strongman business through its biggest admirer.

Schoeck’s journey builds to his entrée into that business with a performance on Coney Island, a location famous for its vaudeville-style acts around the turn of the century. It’s an area steeped in rich strongman history that only a true fan like Schoeck would understand. But we, too, quickly learn its importance thanks to potent, almost melodramatic shots of Schoeck staring at the desolate amusement park in wintertime, reflecting on the heyday of the past greats who have stepped foot on its boardwalk.

It is here, on the stage in front of an eager crowd ready to be amazed, that Schoeck, and his director, prove just how tight a grip their collective story has on the viewer. It’s a realization that hits you with sharp ferocity and will leave you on the edge of your seat as he puts everything on the line in the name of entertainment.

Carroll may capture Schoeck’s world as it expands beyond his basement of bent conquests, but its heartbeat still lies in his small beginnings; in those almost silent establishing shots when only the crunching and cracking of the steel is heard as it twists and bends around his leg. It’s these moments that remain poignant till the end because that is when we, as the cinematic audience, first get to be Schoeck’s spectators. It is the first time we lose control of our jaws and watch as one man asks us to step right up and be amazed, not just with his physical strength but also with his strength of will. And frankly, it’s hard not to oblige.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“Bending Steel” opened at Tribeca on April 20. The film will be screening on Wednesday, April 24 and Saturday, April 27 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea Theatre (located at 260 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues). For ticket and time schedule information, please visit

Featured image: Chris Schoeck from “Bending Steel.” Photo Credit: Richard Ballard.

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