When the helicopter takes you to the snowy peaks at the end of the paved road, where “backcountry” describes a style and a philosophy as oppose to a location, you know you are about to see something beautiful. As if snowboarding was not amazing enough in its gravity-defying freestyle and its seemingly-unstoppable downhill speed, this movie takes you to “first descent” snow, untouched and dangerous, to watch the experts glide down avalanches, rock faces and that dauntingly large jump to show the sport off against a vast, wild playground.
It doesn’t matter a bit that “First Descent” follows a well-established formula for sport movie/documentaries. There are the requisite clips from the sport’s beginnings; the gorgeous scenery of snowy peaks; the focus on a handful of the sport’s defining athletes, past and present; and, of course, the representative soundtrack. What matters here is that it welcomes you into the sport like a friend and introduces you to the joy of finding that great “line”. For those who get sweaty palms and nervous stomachs at watching someone stand atop a cliff face, this extreme snowboarding, ranging from free-style to backcountry, will leave them hugging the floor.
The movie is part documentary — describing snowboarding’s roots and its rapid ascension to the fast-growing, mainstream phenomenon it is today — and part field trip, focusing on six athletes who are taken to Alaska for back-country snowboarding. The six are: Shawn Farmer, who was one of the sport’s wild poster boys; Terje Haakonsen, whose no-nonsense style and fearless approach have made him legendary far beyond his native Norway; Nick Peralta, another who helped define the sport; Travis Rice, whose experience in Japan demonstrates a whole new way of looking at snowboarding; Hannah Teter, a game and gifted young Olympian; and, the 18-year-old surprisingly humble superstar, Shaun White, five-time X Games winner. They range in age from 40 to 17 and one of the movie’s strengths is demonstrating how they all learn from one another as they swoosh down the mountainsides.
The choppy cuts back and forth between Alaska, past clips and footage of competitions are at times a bit clumsy and the back-stories for the six are incomplete snapshots (where’s Peralta’s montage?), however these are small bumps on the slope of an otherwise successful movie. It is doubtful that true fans will learn much that they do not already know or that audience goers will remember anything particular once they leave, but the images of snowboarders weaving down vast snow plains or spinning far above the ground make even the least snow-minded understand the businessman who took up the sport at age 60 and whose eyes sparkle as he admits to being a “complete addict”.
Parents should know that this movie is about a sport that can be quite dangerous. These athletes suffer injuries, wipeouts and other bad falls while the potential for a fatal accident is present in many scenes. Anyone who has a fear of heights should avoid the movie unless they are trying to desensitize themselves. In looking at the history of snowboarding, the movie includes some footage of off-the-slope behavior of the “Jackass” variety, including people breaking bottles over their own heads, jumping from high surfaces onto concrete and other extreme stunts. There are scenes of drinking, drunken behavior, and references to drug use. A recap of the Nagano Olympics, when a snowboarder tested positive for marijuana use, is retold with approval. Youth rebellion through new or dangerous sports is a theme of this movie.
Families might talk about the different subcultures within snowboarding and how they defined themselves as well as how those definitions changed with the sport’s increased popularity. They might also discuss the professionalizing and commercialization of sports in general and the impact those changes have, not just on demographics, but on defining a sport. For example, NASCAR, briefly touched on in “First Descent”, had its roots in prohibition-era liquor smuggling: can you see its links to its past?
Families that enjoy this movie might be interested in other extremely photogenic sport films and documentaries. The prolific Warren Miller has made over 40 movies about downhill skiing filled with scenes of graceful skiers leaping and slaloming down beautiful slopes.
The skateboarding culture touched on in “First Descent” is delved into in Dogtown and Z-Boys. While those who like their adventures at sea level might enjoy the surfing classic The Endless Summer as well as more recent surfing movies such as Step into Liquid and Riding Giants.
The majesty of the Alaskan mountains is also the backdrop for the jaw-dropping film diary about Dick Proenneke who heads to the mountains to test himself in a much less athletic but even more impressive way. The film comprises footage that the self-reliant 50-year-old made as he builds himself a cabin and readies himself for winter over the course of 1967, the first of 30 plus years he ends up staying Alone in the Wilderness.
Thanks to guest critic AME.