ESPN 30 for 30: Angry Sky (2015)

Directed by Jeff Tremaine

In October of 2012, Red Bull Stratos saw daredevil Felix Baumgartner plummet to the earth from what essentially looked like outer space (the stratosphere) at an altitude of approximately 24 miles above the surface of the earth. This stunt was much publicized and celebrated, mostly due to Red Bulls advertisement, but the stunt was notable for all extreme sport enthusiasts as well, which is why it caught the attention of Mat Hoffman, BMX biker extraordinaire. Hoffman soon also found out the story of Nicholas Piantanida, a New Jersey trucker who performed similar stunts in the 1960s. Finding Piantanida’s story worthy of exposure, Hoffman contacted his friend Jeff Tremaine, who had directed the Mat Hoffman 30 for 30 installment The Birth of Big Air.

Knowing very little of extreme sports apart from the late 90s, early 2000s heightened exposure to the sport thanks to ESPN’s coverage of the annual X Games, I am perhaps not the right audience for such a documentary film, but Tremaine sets out to find the human story behind the adventure, to explore Nicholas Piantanida and figure out what would have pushed him to attempt these high altitude jumps, and human stories will always interest me. A daredevil from an early age, Piantanida was never really in the profession, serving time in the military, selling exotic pets, and driving trucks for a living to simply raise enough money for his next adventure. He soon found himself in love with skydiving, and sought to break the unofficial record for a free fall jump, “set” by Joseph Kittinger while testing parachutes for the US military.

I think the story behind Piantanida’s obsession with breaking these records is fascinating to explore, to find his motivations and true passions for the project, but Tremaine’s resulting documentary is choppy at times and loses focus on the subject far too often. I think this is a prime example of an installment in the series that has a runtime far too long for its subject matter, at least in the fashion Tremaine delivers the story. It could have used some editing to trim down some of the superfluous rough edges to just an hour long episode. Usually installments lean the other way, skimming way too much and therefore potentially benefitting from a much lengthier runtime to benefit from the depth of story. In Piantanida’s case, there may very well be enough there to entertain for a full 90 minutes, but Tremaine didn’t show me that.

Now, the parts that are interesting are fantastic, and Tremaine really does shed light on the cavalier style life Piantanida led. He is a larger than life character who doesn’t quite jump off the screen enough. His feats are amazing: scaling the north side of Angel Falls, pursued to play basketball by the New York Knicks, and holding about as many different odd jobs as you can possibly imagine. In many ways, Nick’s life could easily be a work of fiction, and that is what makes it so remarkable. The documentary genre is great for revealing the most interesting, fascinating, and often unbelievable stories and people around the world. Angry Sky is just another example of that in the sporting world.

But for every fascinating piece of information on Piantanida, Tremaine provides a rather slow interlude. In fact, I almost feel as though the background information on Nick is detrimental to the pace of the film, starting the film out in a slow, rather traditional biographical style to hype up to the climax of his time attempting to break the world records. Not having Piantanida to interview is unfortunate, as I would have loved to hear from the man himself, but given this restriction, I also feel not enough time was spent with his wife and family talking about what made him tick, what did he leave behind each time he went on an adventure, and how did he value his family life versus his dream of setting the records. These are questions I was left with, unanswered. For as much as I was entertained by the fascinating true life story of Nicholas Piantanida, I was left with an emptiness in his story that left Angry Sky as just a mediocre entry into the 30 for 30 series.

**1/2 – Average

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