When walking into a film directed by Jeff Tremaine and produced by Johnny Knoxville, you expect to get something shocking and gruesome a la Jackass, however, this isn't the case with Birth of Big Air. Not that the boys of Jackass don't have heart, but the degree of dedication and ardor exemplified in this film is unfounded. But Jackass enthusiasts aren't left empty handed. There's certainly enough action and accidents to go around, but rather than giving yourself paper cuts as a recreational activity, Mat Hoffman is risking his life for the sake of his passion.
BMX has been around for quite a while, but it wasn't until Hoffman arrived that the sport evolved from a rogue hobby into a respected show of athleticism. Tremaine kicks off the piece with a look at BMX's early days, all the way back to Bob Haro in the late 70s. As the sport builds momentum, so does the documentary. Tremaine seamlessly eases in Hoffman's story as though it were merely another notable timely progression. But perhaps that's because it was. From the moment Hoffman's mother decided to submit a photo of her son getting some serious air to a magazine, BMX would never be the same.
Hoffman's next milestone was his big win at his first real competition at Madison Square Garden. From there it's a whirlwind of contests and sponsors and Hoffman's 'decade of domination.' Birth of Big Air has clearly turned into Hoffman's story, but the inclusion of a vast amount of industry icons maintains a sense of generality therefore enhancing the fact that Hoffman's experiences weren't just personal; they were industry wide.
At the point at which the film introduces the concept of big air, it has nearly developed into a narrative. Hoffman was always known for getting far more height than his competitors, so when there's nobody to compete against but yourself, the only thing to do is go bigger. When stuntman Johnny Airtime proposed the idea of using a bigger ramp to get bigger air, the venture becomes a reality and the pressure to climb higher and higher multiplies exponentially. From being towed by a motorcycle to attaching a mini motor to his bike, you're with Hoffman every step of the way, causing your heart to skip a beat with every attempt.
The danger is always implied, and even made into a gag at one point, but it isn't until Hoffman takes a serious fall that this documentary turned narrative becomes a heart wrenching drama. With his wife and children by his side, every fall Hoffman takes is like a punch in the chest, or in the spleen in his case. The ramifications of his emotional demands hit just as hard. The guy is clearly aware of the risks he's taking and the effect they can have on his family, but his desire to be the best is unrestrained. Just like Hoffman, you know he should stop, but at the same time, you want him to take that one last run.
There's surprisingly something for everyone here. There's the inevitable broken bones and blood for the Jackass fans, tons of trick footage and moments with the best of the best for BMX diehards and a trying account for those just looking for an inspiring story. Hoffman is a very noble and undeniable talented subject and Tremaine uses those assets to create a documentary that’s not only compelling, but also a blast to watch. If this is a representation of ESPN's 30 for 30 program, a documentary series about 30 true events that transformed sports since ESPN’s very first year, I better make an effort to catch the other 29. Perhaps I’ll kick that effort off by catching Jeff Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars, which is also playing at Tribeca.
Follow along with all of our special, Tribeca 2010 coverage right here.