A sports documentary that would be right at home as part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, McConkey is simultaneously engaging and frustratingly superficial. Written and directed by a team of five (Rob Bruce, Scott Gaffney, Murray Wais, Steve Winter, and David Zieff), the film recounts the life of Shane McConkey, renowned as perhaps the most influential skier ever, thanks to his to-the-extreme career. He was known as an envelope-pushing daredevil due to his passion for BASE jumping (i.e. leaping and parachuting off bridges, cliffs, and other treacherous heights) and wingsuit flying. His was a life of maximum risk, and he eventually paid the price for it 2009, when he attempted to ski off an Italian peak, disengage his skis, then glide via wingsuit to the terrain below. A malfunction in his ski releases led to his death at age 39.
The lead-up to that tragedy is McConkey’s framing device, and it casts a pall over the rest of the far more jovial proceedings. A child of divorce (his rarely seen father was also famous for his slope skills), McConkey realized at an early age that skiing was the only thing he wanted to do. Even after youthful attempts to make America’s national team proved unsuccessful, he pursued his passion with gusto, pushing past conventional boundaries with an intensity offset by a goofball sense of humor that often manifested via nude ski runs.
Equally inspired by his father’s ski films and the extreme-skiing classic The Blizzard Of Aahhh’s, McConkey incessantly videotaped himself both on and off the slopes, so McConkey is immensely bolstered by copious home movies of its subject. Primarily composed of up-close-and-personal footage of McConkey preparing for or pulling off insane feats, the film—which provides commentary from a host of friends, family members, and admirers—is, in a basic sense, as intimate as possible. It offers such close proximity to the man at work and play, over the course of three decades, that it provides a clear, compelling sense of his thrill-seeking recklessness and endearing silliness.
And yet for all its amazing material of McConkey launching himself off death-defying crests, often shot via first-person helmet-cams, McConkey never truly scratches beneath the surface to investigate what compelled him to take such obviously fatal risks, especially once he got married and became a father. While the directors suggest that the seeds of this dangerous vocation may have come from a desire to feel a connection to his absentee father, that implication flies by as fast as one of McConkey’s terrifying tricks, leaving the film closed off from its center of attention. It’s possible that McConkey did what he did simply out of an indescribable, undeniable craving for the ultimate rush. Nonetheless, the film’s climactic refusal to wrestle with the causes, and the immense cost his profession cost him and his loved ones, turns McConkey into a charming puff piece.