The Rescue, an extraordinary 2021 film from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi–the power couple behind Free Solo–tells the story of 14 teenagers who got stranded deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand and their improbable, high-risk extraction. One of the film’s most compelling scenes occurs early, when the girlfriend of a rescue diver is describing their courtship–the attraction, the dates, the sweet notes. The interviewer asks: “Did you fall in love?” After a pause and a sheepish grin, she nods vigorously and says, “Yes!” It’s a small moment of warmth and vulnerability in a thriller that otherwise unfolds at breakneck pace, and it connects us to the characters in a way that even their heroic actions do not.
The Rescue is just one of many impressive adventure documentaries that have created considerable buzz in recent years. Of course, everyone has seen Free Solo, but The Alpinist and 14 Peaks also made a splash. And how about HBO’s 100 Foot Wave–a series following Garrett McNamara’s attempt to ride a monster swell that made me shout at my TV in amazement? Or The River Runner, about the rise and fall and rise of Scott Lindgren, one of the world’s greatest whitewater kayakers? The list goes on: The Dawn Wall, Torn, Meru, Sunshine Superman, Icarus, Into the Canyon, Minding the Gap, The Barkley Marathons, and McConkey, to mention just a few. These came from filmmakers who had to work very hard to bring their projects to life.
As a writer who has spent several decades refining my own craft, I can appreciate how challenging it is to get such stories right. And as a movie buff with a yen for adventure–among other things, I’ve served as a moderator at Mountainfilm and as a judge at the 5Point Film Festival, both eagerly anticipated annual gatherings in Colorado–I can say with confidence that there’s never been a time as rich in high-quality adventure documentaries as right now.
Some reasons behind the success are obvious: bigger budgets, smaller cameras, better production and editing technology, more distribution platforms, from Netflix to YouTube, and expanding audiences hungry for outdoor-focused entertainment. Less obvious is the evolution of nuanced storytelling techniques, which made these projects special.
“With core action-sports films, it’s always been about the most high-end capture possible,” says Todd Jones, cofounder of Teton Gravity Research (TGR), which produced Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season and the acclaimed Kissed by God, on the life and death of surfer Andy Irons. “But when you give us a really good story, and you let us apply our craft and tactics of filmmaking to it, and when we bring the high-end visuals and mix that with story, you get this really beautiful and sophisticated documentary.”
I grew up watching ski and snowboard flicks as well as edge-of-your-seat adventure movies from Brain Farm, Matchstick Productions, Sherpas Cinema, TGR, and others. They were slick, myopic, and mostly devoid of narrative. I loved them. Eventually, though, I sought deeper, more meaningful fare–award-winning features, critics’ picks, historical films. I fed my growing appetite at film festivals, tracked down rare DVDs, ferreted out classics: Endless Summer, A Sunday in Hell, Mountain of Storms, and many more. There were some vintage standouts, like Kon Tiki, the Oscar-winning 1950 documentary about Thor Heyerdahl’s epic voyage across the Pacific on a wooden raft. I also enjoyed The Man Who Skied Down Everest, a moody, introspective tale of Yuichiro Miura’s 1970 descent of the world’s tallest mountain. But finding really great adventure documentaries was like panning for gold.
For me, the movie that ushered in a new level of empathy and narrative mastery was Touching the Void, a 2004 docudrama based on Joe Simpson’s bestseller about two climbers who struggled to survive a horrific accident on Siula Grande, a 20,000-foot peak in Peru. Because there was no footage from the expedition, Scottish director Kevin Macdonald–already an Oscar winner for the 2000 documentary One Day in September–used actors to re-create the events. Weaving the action with interviews from Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, the film dances around a central moral dilemma: When do you leave your injured friend to save yourself? When do you cut the rope?
Touching the Void works well because it connects the dramatic details of alpine climbing with universal, relatable qualities that make us human. “It was the loneliness, that sense of being abandoned, which was there all the time,” says Simpson in the film’s penultimate scene, the camera pulled in tight. “I didn’t crawl because I thought I’d survive. I think I wanted to be with somebody when I died.”
Our current crop of creators must have been taking notes. “People sign up for the adrenaline rush of watching someone push the edge, but they connect with the story through those human moments,” says Max Lowe, whose 2021 documentary Torn explores how his family has coped with the loss of his father, the storied climber Alex Lowe. When Alex Lowe’s body was discovered in Tibet 17 years after his death in an avalanche on 26,335-foot Shishapangma, his wife and children were forced to confront many unresolved feelings, not the least of which were those of the filmmaker himself.
Some subjects offer easy access. Others, not so much. In Lindsey Vonn, getting past the ski-racing superstar’s surrounding crowd of friends and handlers–the “Vonntourage,” as Teton’s Todd Jones puts it–proved to be one of the trickier parts of the endeavor. To capture scenes that the filmmakers couldn’t get near, they attached a microphone to Vonn and shot from a distance. Pieces of footage were even filmed on an iPhone by one of Vonn’s trainers, in closed-door sessions. The result is a documentary that resonates with honesty and raw emotion, a moving portrait of a great athlete navigating the end of her career.
Adventure filmmakers also understand that, at times, you might need to shoot without any crew at all. In The Alpinist, Sender Films’ gripping profile of Canadian climbing phenom Marc-Andre Leclerc, some of the most compelling material comes from Leclerc himself while he’s pinned down in the middle of a big solo ascent. “There’s that kind of intimacy you get of Marc-Andre, thousands of feet up on the headwall of Torre Egger in the teeth of a Patagonian storm,” says director Nick Rosen. “He’s bivouacked on this ledge and pulls out the camera to give this message to his girlfriend. It’s maybe my favorite part of the whole film.”
In a certain sense, this is the kind of thing Hollywood has always aimed for, and frequently missed, in scripted films, defaulting to laughably sensationalized dramatic action in lieu of authentic characters and scenes. (Looking at you, Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit.) Even the better efforts, like Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Jean-Marc Vallee’s version of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild–both terrific books–had less impact than, say, The Alpinist or The Rescue. But that, too, may be changing soon: for their next project, Chin and Vasarhelyi have signed on to direct Nyad, a feature film based on the story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, which will star Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as her manager.
It wasn’t long ago that I felt adventure films were routinely falling short. But with so much talent behind the cameras these days, that’s no longer the case. New adventure documentaries are living up to their potential, with dazzling, sometimes daring cinematography and a deep sense of character, tackling the existential questions that our exploits in the natural world often provoke.
The forthcoming feature about Nyad may elevate the scripted Hollywood movie to new heights, but some cool new adventure documentaries are on the horizon, too, including a series from TGR on extreme sports, which is in production for HBO. I’m already on the couch, popcorn popped, ready to catch the next wave.
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