There are some documentaries that are so remarkably cinematic that they cannot be contained and become fodder for narrative drama. The Oscar winning “Man on Wire” became the inert biopic “The Walk”, Werner Herzog adapted his own “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” into “Rescue Dawn” and “Our Brand is Crisis” unoriginally became “Our Brand is Crisis”. With mixed results, these are movies where the implicit strength is tailor made for a larger canvas. The same could be said for Jason P. Schumacher’s skydiving documentary “Beyond the Thrill”. A film so packed with beautiful moments and human drama that I could easily see it being translated into a feature. It contains all the elements found in so many great films. Struggle. Danger. An ally who is unable to make it to the finish. The final push at the end when it seems like victory is lost.
“Beyond the Thrill” follows “Cosmic Debris”, a team of skydivers, as they prepare for a Championship event. They choreograph their intricate moves endlessly on the ground. Because the slightest mistake could not only ruin the routine but cost lives, there is no margin for error. They must work together and with precision to form complex formations in the sky as they freefall to earth. This alone seems like an intriguing premise. A life affirming film about pushing ourselves to the limit. Facing down fear and connecting with others. You anticipate stunning aerial cinematography (a built in advantage since one of the divers is a cameraman who records all the jumps), but what was unexpected was how well Schumacher illustrates the mesmerizing force the sky has on the team members and the void that is caused when they are unable to do what they love.
They describe the act of skydiving as the great equalizer. “The guy that delivers pizzas could be the top guy at the drop zone.” To them it has a way of cutting through and simplifying. They see the outside world as climbing ladders and skydiving as a way of letting go. The film also comes face to face with real danger. Kaleb, maybe the team’s most passionate member, crashes and is put into a coma when attempting a dangerous landing. After recovering, he is barred from competition and the group is forced to replace him or disband.
My only criticism would be that when the film does delve into the idiosyncrasies of the team it would be better to just show rather than break in and explain through interviews. The adrenaline fueled post jump bonfire celebrations seem like a real glance inside the subculture rather than a footnote. Also, at 58 minutes, there’s room for more content and I could have used a brief a section dedicated to the history of skydiving and how long it had existed as competition.
Said perfectly by one of the divers, “Being involved in this great beautiful sky. This big atmosphere. This big act of nature. With all the clouds and the wind and the sun. It’s just this big dynamic painting and you’re involved in it. You’re caught up in it.” This sentiment describes immersive documentaries such as “Beyond the Thrill” as well. A tremendous film about fragility and the peace that comes from letting something overwhelm you.