Directed by Jeff Tremaine
In the mid 90s ESPN introduced the X Games on the world. So how fitting that on the final night of the Winter X Games, where Shaun White posted a perfect score of 100 on his final run in the Snowboarding Half Pipe competition, I sat down to watch The Birth of Big Air. This is not an X Games documentary, but rather the story of one of its biggest stars, BMX Biker Mat Hoffman, whose pioneering insanity in the sport helped develop it to the point it is today with massive air and even bigger risks. Hoffman was just a kid from Oklahoma, but it quickly became apparent that he was going to revolutionize the sport when it won an amateur competition, turned pro, and won the pro competition at the same event.
Extreme sports is something which has interested me since I was a kid watching the first few X Games ever held. There was something unique about what was going on that was scary, new, and entertaining. I couldn’t get enough of the awesome, near impossible, tricks these guys were landing on bikes and skateboards. I couldn’t get enough of how high they were flying through the air like some sort of superhero. The culture is completely different from who I am as a person, and I never picked up a bike or skateboard to try these things, but man did I admire these guys for how “stupid” they were/are. I think with the popularity of the “Flying Tomato”, Shaun White, in the last Olympic games, more and more people are being swept up by the coolest sport in the world, extreme sports.
As one of the leading pioneers of the sport, Mat Hoffman did things that no human should have subjected himself to. He built ramps taller and bigger than anyone had ever tried, pushing the limits of the sport to the point that he doubled the sizes of ramps overnight. But with every big result came big injury. Over the years Mat has suffered injury to nearly ever part of his body, including too many concussions to count and even a near death experience when his spleen exploded on a fall. His body has taken more punishment than arguably any other 40 year old, and yet he pushes on. The larger than life aspect of Mat Hoffman and his story is what makes the film entertaining.
But what makes the film come out as just average is the coverage of his story, which more often than not comes across as merely slight, scratching the surface coverage. Director Jeff Tremaine gives us a nice chronological retrospective on Mat’s career, but never dares delve any deeper into any of the real important questions, at least in my mind. we meet Mat’s father and learn that they encouraged him at a young age, but why did they encourage him? What was their thought process as parents letting him do these things, especially when he got hurt? And maybe more importantly, how did he get into the sport at all in the first place?
I also felt as though Tremaine could have gone deeper with Jaci Hoffman, Mat’s wife, and what it was/is like being his wife instead of more specifically on a single event when he had to be rushed to the hospital. How did/does Mat feel with his line of work being a father and a husband? What makes him soldier on despite these things and what are his priorities? To some extent these questions are answered, but I always felt like there was more to the story, something deeper that I wanted to know. Despite that I enjoyed the film, but that had a lot to do with both the respect I have for these guys and the amount of enjoyment I get out of extreme sports. Not everyone is like that, and I know that. I also know that this film is not going to convert the people who think that what they do is just dumb, and nothing else. Heck, the film more than anything probably would just solidify that opinion.
I wonder what Spike Jonze could have done with this film instead.