Virgin Group founder, philanthropist, entrepreneur and daredevil Sir Richard Branson is that rare industry mogul and billionaire who not once but twice made a swan dive into cheating death when he and fellow hot air balloon engineer and pilot Per Lindstrand attempted to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean using the world’s largest hot air balloon ever built. Told for the very first time by documentary filmmaker Daniel Gordon in its entirety with a wealth of footage documenting the death defying record breaking aviation endeavor, Don’t Look Down ranks easily as the most harrowing, most nerve wracking, most suspenseful documentary of the year that isn’t a conventional thriller. Much like the story of Apollo 13, everything that could possibly go wrong and end the lives of its two inexperienced pilots goes wrong and I lost track of the amount of times my blood ran cold while watching this. From the balloon catching fire, loss of communication, loss of control, loss of too many air tanks, loss of parachutes, the film is two hours of sheer white knuckle tension and while the dynamic duo ultimately do succeed in crossing the Atlantic and Pacific after many numerous attempts, the act of watching the footage unfold from the balloon itself, air traffic control and nearby rescue teams isn’t any less terrifying to watch. Like the old saying goes, truth is always stranger and more compelling than fiction. While some may argue that the film is another extension of Branson’s lifelong entrepreneurial self-promotion, a point of view that isn’t completely without merit, I was so caught up in the thick and choking tension that I didn’t care about that. You won’t find a more suspenseful watch all year.
Now that the good is out of the way, let’s talk about the bad. Director Gordon, known for his fascinating and equally frightening North Korea Mass Games documentary A State of Mind, puts together a great string of interviews and preexisting footage of the events unfolding with one peculiar exception: Gordon shoots the interviews and reenactment footage in 2.35:1 with the preexisting footage shown in native 1.33:1 inside a panoramic window. The last time I saw anything like this was when I saw Gone with the Wind, a 1.33:1 fullscreen film, projected theatrically inside a 2.35:1 window. Why do this? Why not shoot it in 1.85:1 to better accommodate the 1.33:1 footage? It’s a shame because there really isn’t any pragmatic reason to shoot this in widescreen and it takes away from the amazing footage captured by Branson and Lindstrand’s cameras. Another problem is that it starts to dabble momentarily into Branson’s upbringing but then drops any further investigation, instead shifting focus on the immediate proceedings. I also didn’t care much for the reenactment footage which resemble most television dramatizations and threaten to take away from the unbearable tension of the actual footage. These complaints are minor in the face of the completely terrifying footage of the world’s largest hot air balloon bobbing down to the sea only to fly back up into the jet stream like God himself is playing Yo-Yo with the aircraft over and over again. Seeing the two men in the aircraft and the palpable tension streaked across their faces as they wrestle with the prospect of this record breaking flight mission potentially ending their lives is among the scariest sights I’ve seen all year, more than any horror movie or suspense thriller.
In the end I prefer Gordon’s A State of Mind for taking viewers deeper into the heart of the world’s most mysterious and secluded dictatorial regime than any other documentary has done before. Comparatively it’s more polished and isn’t stigmatized by the vicarious promotion of the Virgin Group. That said, I still highly recommend Don’t Look Down for taking viewers right into the terrified and triumphant emotions felt by Branson and Lindstrand’s endeavor. As Clint Eastwood’s Sully reminded viewers that piloting an aircraft is more about troubleshooting than successful flying, Don’t Look Down reinforces that notion as virtually every scene of the aircraft before, during and after takeoff is plagued with problems. The film dabbles somewhat into the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy holding this at times flimsy tightrope walk together but mainly focuses on the flight in question. The journey is mostly completely told but I did leave wanting more detail on the machinations that made this record breaking event possible. In spite of the shortcomings, the in-flight footage and air traffic control footage is astonishing in its spectacle and tension. Much like Man on Wire, Don’t Look Now speaks to man’s daring to dream the impossible and embark on quantum leaps for all mankind. Branson and Lindstrand might have been in over their head, unprepared and not always operating to the best of their abilities, but they damn sure pulled it off!
- Andrew Kotwicki