This is different. A ski documentary presented in the form of a meditation on death wrapped up in the celebration of a life. Being as famous as he is, there can be no real skier going in to see McConkey who doesn’t know what happens. There’s no suspense for the viewer here; the ending is known. In fact, the movie opens at the scene of the tragedy. It’s how the story is told that will make the documentary compelling. Shane McConkey’s untimely end cannot be played down in his life story because McConkey himself continually ratcheted up the odds in his quest to combine skiing with wing-suit flying and so progress his passion for extreme physical experiences.
But it’s the small things that have the greatest effect in this movie. Sure, there is an astounding array of great shots of brash, pioneering skiing that changed the sport for the better forever. But those are not the scenes that are going to stay will you once it’s over. It’s the small things like his wife telling how Shane would assuage her fears whenever the subject of danger arose or his Mom talking about how she forces thoughts of danger and tragedy from her mind in order to get through it all. The foreshadowing here weighs heavily.
McConkey’s particular strength is the fact that it was made by Shane McConkey’s longtime friends Murray Wais, Steve Winter and Scott Gaffney and these same friends happen to run a sports action film company and have been documenting McConkey’s progress in their annual ski movies since the early 90s. This team knew their subject intimately. The risk with such a close relationship is that the documentary will become a maudlin hagiography that presents only one side of the subject. McConkey suffers no such handicap. Shane’s childhood, high school and college years are all presented with the dark sides illustrated side by side with the ski heroics. Trite to say, but McConkey really does deliver the feeling of understanding the man, certainly better than 2011’s Ordinary Skier did for Seth Morrison or 2012’s Few Words did for Candide Thovex, and perhaps on par with way 2010’s Like A Lion presented Tanner Hall.
Shane McConkey’s athleticism was uncommon. Someone says, early in the movie, “He had the balance of a bird and the reflexes of a jungle cat”. Watching film of his exploits is deceptive because he makes it look all so easy. Clearly, physically, Shane McConkey was an elite even when grouped with elites but that just gave him the tools to go to those incredible places to which his imagination led. McConkey’s real achievement is in pushing boundaries and as a film, where McConkey excels is in burnishing his reputation as a leading developer of the sport that skiing has become in the past decade, specifically his development of fat skis. The film coverage here is illuminating even for knowledgeable ski fans. For the uninitiated or those not familiar with the current state of the sport, it’s essential viewing. It’s not extremely detailed and so it won’t cause any loss of interest to the non-technically minded. It is just enough to illustrate how the revolution was won. If that wasn’t enough of a career accomplishment, the story’s next chapter covers McConkey’s forays into ski-B.A.S.E. jumping where the margin for error is extremely low and then ski-B.A.S.E. jumping combined with wingsuit flying, where the risk is even more pronounced. These are the extreme sports in the realm of the super-human. The average person will have a difficult time keeping up with a man who has a taste for the truly terrifying. But, McConkey was showing us what was possible if you really thought about it.
After achieving unimagined successes, the real question for the protagonist in such sports action stories is “When do you quit”? One’s parents live in constant trepidation. One’s spouse is often more understanding even if only for the fact that that consenting adult person made to conscious decision to marry the thrill seeker. But, undoubtedly, a toll is taken there too. However, the arrival of children ought to give pause for serious thought and McConkey intimates that once his daughter was a toddler, this is where Shane’s thought process was going. He clearly doted on his daughter and he seemed to be making the mental moves to accept his role as father present in the raising of his children. But the timing was not to be and one more trip to Italy to ski-B.A.S.E. jump proved fatal.
McConkey’s story is riveting but there’s no getting away from the tragedy. So the meditation becomes this: You have one life. Live It. But once you have kids your life isn’t fully yours anymore. You share it. So be smart. By Mark “The Attorney General” Quail