As sports stories go, Nick Piantanida’s is a boring one. He attempted a feat, three times, and failed. Nick Piantanida as a man, however, is more interesting, but not enough to save Angry Sky from a lack of depth. An extreme parachutist before that was even a thing, Piantanida attempted to break the free fall record some 23 miles above the Earth in the back half of the 1960s. Wikipedia, and the opening scene of the movie, disclose the grave results. Angry Sky, then, is a lesson in patience that doesn’t pay off as much as it should.
Like plenty of documentary subjects before him, Piantanida was headstrong, charming, and selfish. He was obstinate to an excruciating degree, and, like Into The Wild’s Christopher McCandless, one could argue Nick was fatally reckless, perversely determined to achieve his dream (Angry Sky, even for a sports doc, achieves a high score of “his dream” utterances) without proper equipment, training, experience, or help. Some of his friends seem to think so, but the issue floats in the wind among the lionization of the Jersey blue collar turned daredevil. A deeper exploration into issues only lightly touched would have served the film well.
The three actual jumps depicted in Angry Sky are true heart-racing excitement, but the buildup (or, the other 65 minutes of the film) lies flat. Too much filler and not-problems (he needs a balloon so then he gets a balloon) plague screen time that Jackass filmmaker Jeff Tremaine could have devoted to the shielded emotional core of this film: for what, or for whom, do you relinquish a dream? Deep emotions seem to go unsaid or, at the very least, unfilmed.
Angry Sky is presented in a mix of home videos, photos, and reenactments caked in Instagram filters and chintzy film grain. The film gives into its basest instincts and is poorer for it. One shot zooms up on a tacked up piece of paper that says “Goal” underlined in faux-emphasis. The actual footage, particularly the real audio from Piantanida’s ascents, are stunning in both their beauty and banality. A grainy view of the Earth’s curve, in today’s New Horizons world, seems rudimentary, but this was 1966: man had yet to step foot on the moon. Few men had seen what those cameras captured.
In the audio recordings, the parachutist and his crew joke about a bet over a steak, about popping up his visor, about how long it takes (three hours!) to climb to Piantanida’s desired height. The crew, and that’s a loose term for the group of men helping this man to jump from space, are calm and sometimes bored—a different side than the many shouts and sweaty brows of Ed Harris’s mission control. This is perhaps Angry Sky’s greatest feat, giving viewers a brief look inside the dusty garage dreams of a foolhardy and fearless American. It’s almost refreshing to have to listen to the events unfold, an organic bit of drama during the three attempts.
Piantanida’s wife talks touchingly of how she loved this man and did not want him to change, but surely part of her resents him for the three children and doting woman he left behind? A better documentarian could turn into Piantanida’s story into varied explorations of human obstinance, passion, or drive (depending on how you see things), but a sports story it is certainly not. The X’s and O’s of the inspiration sports docudrama keep the film from soaring beyond middling heights.
- Spoiler alert
- “I thought it was the biggest thing since the plowing contest”
- “[They] were facing some financial hurdles” is never something you want to hear about your balloon-making company
- Project Strato-Jump was also my favorite X-Men storyline
- So are there any Piantanida truthers out there?
- Despite Bill Simmons’s departure from ESPN, 30 For 30 will be back for another 30 documentaries vaguely about sports!