Release: Thursday, July 30, 2015 (Vol. II, Ep. 30)
Starring: Nick Piantanida; Felix Baumgartner
Directed by: Jeff Tremaine
Distributor: ESPN Films
Tom Petty wrote a song once called “Learning to Fly.” One lyric in particular stands out: ‘Coming down is the hardest thing.’ The song’s harmless of course, but that part of the chorus seems hauntingly apt for the experiences of one Nick Piantanida, amateur parachute jumper and all-around daredevil in the 1960s.
Angry Sky features the New Jersey chutist’s three attempts to break the world record for highest sky dive, using a manned balloon that would achieve a height of 123, 500 feet (20+ miles) above the Earth. On each attempt something would go wrong and, tragically, the problems only became more complex and life-threatening with each effort.
Because of the malfunctions, Piantanida never technically accomplished his goal of becoming the first person to jump from the stratosphere. However he did set the standard for highest manned balloon flight, a record that stood until October 2012, when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull in an event that has to be seen to be believed, successfully broke the sound barrier by falling 24 vertical miles.
Jeff Tremaine is once again on hand to deliver a story about sensational extreme sports enthusiasts, constructing an adrenaline-spiking piece that, while never revolutionary in its delivery, puts a very human spin on a story and subject matter that seems alien to anyone else not caught up in the culture and science of this kind of boundary-pushing thrill seeking. Tremaine interviews family, friends and colleagues who reflect back on the life of a man who could never be convinced not to do the thing he was trying to accomplish.
In some senses Piantanida could be viewed as a selfish individual. Attempting such a jump, not once but three times over the course of a year, necessarily carried with it the implication that he may be saying goodbye to his wife and three children on each occasion. The drama builds in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore a sense of egotism and impatience over becoming world famous.
Angry Sky has little interest in demonizing anyone. Its purpose doesn’t amount to calling someone crazy (even if he is). Like any documentary with its head in the right place, it aims to explore the things that make a person complex. You could make the argument he is a man of simple pleasures, always seeking the most powerful adrenaline rush possible.
But we’re also introduced to a guy who never quite grasped the concept of team sports. He could have been a great basketball player but he had to do things his own way. He joined the Armed Forces after high school and earned the rank of corporal. Afterwards he got into rock climbing, and with a friend established a route up the north side of the 3,000-foot Auyántepui, the mighty Venezuelan plateau over which the world’s tallest waterfall spills.
Tremaine manages to straddle the line between being specific with the information he chooses to keep and appealing to a broad audience. Skydiving is a rather obscure sport yet he knows it’s a pool well worth wading into. Piantanida’s story may be the first (and it may ever be the only) documentary on the sport in this film series, but that question, the one we’re all thinking — what makes a person want to put themselves at such a risk? — more than justifies the film’s existence. Why so high, Nick? Why so high?
Baumgartner also briefly features, and though he doesn’t say much, he offers some context for the ambitions of this young man. If his iconic free fall a mere two years ago was enough to take away the world’s collective breath — and it really was quite the incredible thing to watch — remember some guy had tried to do this with much less technology nearly a half century ago. Yeah, that was Nick Piantanida.
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Moral of the Story: Obscure, but fascinating. Story may well appeal to more extreme sports junkies than any other group but it’s one of the more interesting stories detailing how a strong personality and danger-courting pursuits often go hand-in-hand. Well worth a watch if you’re into action sports.
Running Time: 77 mins.
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