Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story -- Film Review

A lively and moving portrait of the former golden boy of alpine skiing.

First-time filmmaker Zeke Piestrup depicts the story of former Olympic champion Bill Johnson in the moving documentary, that includes the traumatic accident that left the skiier with serious brain injuries.

Defying odds and ultimately tempting fate, 1984 Winter Olympics sensation Bill Johnson and his dramatic rise-and-fall trajectory makes for compelling viewing in Downhill: The Bill Johnson Story.

As documented by first-time filmmaker Zeke Piestrup, Johnson’s journey from would-be juvenile delinquent to becoming the first American male to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing, is just the beginning of the story — one that’s brimming with enough human drama and colorful background detail to fill a feature-length biopic.

Although produced for airing on The Ski Channel, complete with commercial break cues, the 76-minute films plays terrifically in front of a live audience, as demonstrated at its sold-out Santa Barbara International Film Festival premiere.

Piestrup starts off, fittingly, showing Johnson on top of the world, having taking Sarajevo by storm.

Johnson, then a 23-year-old with a Jon Heder demeanor combined with the languid cockiness of an X-Gamer ahead of his time who took his inspiration from Robert Redford in Downhill Racer, manages to irk his more-disciplined European competitors (including alpine legend Franz Klammer who dismisses him as a “nose-picker”).

Thanks to an added boost from Johnson’s knowledge of thermodynamics, his surprise ’84 Olympics win made everyone take notice, including Hollywood, which produced the 1985 TV movie, Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story, with Anthony Edwards filling his skis.

By the end of the next decade, his glory days were well behind him when, at age 40, bankrupt, divorced with two kids and living alone in his motor home Johnson would embark on a dramatic comeback bid.

But his hopes of an Olympics victory winning back his family were dashed during a 2001 championship race in Montana when a terrible fall left him with severe brain injuries.

Despite the tragic elements — and there’s more where they come from — Piestrup also mines plenty of lighter moments thanks to the pointed observations of his assembled talking heads, ranging from Johnson’s Olympics contemporaries Phil Mahre and Todd Brooker to his immediate family and old carousing buddies.

Deliberately left for last is the man of the hour himself, who, despite having had to learn how to walk and talk — and ski — all over again has seen his condition progressively deteriorate as the result of a series of recent injury-related strokes.

Having gotten to know Johnson through this involving documentary, you get the distinct feeling he would have rather arrived at the final finish line at a much more dramatic clip.


Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production companies: The Ski Channel
Director-writer: Zeke Piestrup
Executive producer: Steve Bellamy   
Director of photography: Zeke Piestrup
Music: Stephen E. Cox
Editor: Zeke Piestrup
No MPAA Rating, 76 minutes