EmptyThrill-seekers spend their lives in pursuit of the biggest wave to surf or the highest mountain to climb, and for the past few decades, documentary filmmakers have celebrated their exploits.
In "Steep," writer-director Mark Obenhaus travels across the globe with a bunch of skiers who eschew popular resorts in favor of far more harrowing runs down rugged mountains that were never meant to accommodate a pair of ski poles. According to this vivid documentary, the sport of extreme, big-mountain skiing took hold in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the 1960s, when Bill Briggs decided to try skiing mountains in the Grand Tetons that no one had ever imagined navigating. Not long afterward, European skiers tried the same treacherous gambit in the French Alps. Legends were born, and other daredevils decided to follow suit.
The film is dedicated to newsman Peter Jennings, whom Obenhaus and his producers worked for at ABC News, where they proposed a documentary on extreme skiing before Jennings died. They traveled to Europe, British Columbia, Alaska and Iceland to capture some of the most dangerous and awesome runs. The film will find an appreciative audience among all fans of extreme sports, but it is a specialty item unlikely to break through to general audiences.
The film's main asset is the cinematography of Erich Roland. Some of the footage here is archival, taken from previous ski movies. But most of it is new material, which must have been almost as perilous to capture as the ski jumps were to execute. Helicopters take us astonishingly close to the skiers as they climb up dizzying peaks, then race down 90-degree cliffs and sometimes jump off precipices with parachutes to bring them back to Earth.
Several skiers are interviewed, and while the men -- and one woman -- are engaging, the film fails to probe what it is that drives them to pursue these death-defying runs. A few of them offer explanations, like the idea that a brush with death makes life more exhilarating. But these comments rarely go beyond cliche. It might be that a documentary is not the best format for psychological investigation, though Werner Herzog managed it in "Grizzly Man," another film about a man irresistibly drawn to danger.
Watching "Steep," one longs for deeper insights. Although the film ends with the death of one of the skiers, this lacks impact because we haven't been brought close to any of the athletes.
Perhaps the sports fans who are the movie's likeliest audience would not want to see their heroes put under a psychological microscope, but the film misses an opportunity to become more than a snowbound "Endless Summer." "Steep" might have been called "Endless Winter," because as one skier says, "There is no such thing as too much snow."
The editing is excellent, and the haunting music by Anton Sanko makes a perfect counterpoint to the unearthly images.
Sony Pictures Classics
The Documentary Group, High Ground Prods.
Director-screenwriter: Mark Obenhaus
Producers: Jordan Kronick, Gabrielle Tenenbaum
Executive producers: Tom Yellin, Mark Obenhaus, J. Stuart Horsfall
Director of photography: Erich Roland
Music: Anton Sanko
Co-producer: William A. Kerig
Editor: Peter R. Livingston Jr.
Narrator: Peter Krause
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: PG