Tribeca: 'McConkey' is an Outstanding Tribute to an Extreme Legend
by Alex Billington
April 23, 2013
What does "living life to the fullest" really mean? There is an icon, a sports legend, who revolutionized and changed the entire sport he excelled in. He was loved by all, a goofball at heart who lived for the thrill and always kept pushing the limits no matter what that meant. His name was Shane McConkey and he lived a wonderful life, until his tragic demise in 2009 in a skiing BASE jump that went wrong. Collecting years of archival footage, Red Bull, who sponsored the extreme athlete for many years, put together the documentary McConkey chronicling the incredible story of one man who truly lived an exceptional life. It's outstanding.
Many people, even hardcore sports fans, are likely not familiar with the name McConkey - unless they're big into skiing. Shane McConkey, who started ski racing as a child, eventually broke into and revolutionized the sport of freeskiing - which is essentially big mountain, powder freestyle skiing as a championship sport. After years of dominating that world, winning event after event and landing magazine covers and film deals left and right, he moved on to the even more extreme sport of BASE jumping. He then pushed that to the next level — inspired by one of my favorite openings as well, the opening ski chase from Bond's The Spy Who Loved Me — combining freeskiing directly into cliffside BASE jumps. McConkey is known as one of the greatest skiers of all-time and his memory will undoubtedly live on in the legacy this documentary captures.
While many may not be familiar McConkey before seeing this, that wasn't my case. My older brother has been a freeskier for many years, competing in a few of the same events as McConkey. I grew up skiing as well and have come to know and respect the freeskiing community through my brother, which is a small community where everybody knows everybody. In extreme sports like big mountain skiing and BASE jumping and sky diving, the risk is high, everyone understands that, but when someone dies everyone in the community feels it, they always do. When Shane died it was a huge moment. However, this documentary is about remembering his life, and the joys of it; how much he inspired everyone around him. They cover pretty much every last detail of his life from start to finish, remembering him vividly as the sports icon he is.
What's remarkable about this documentary is that they've been following him for years and have so much footage of him. Starting from when he was a very young kid training in ski racing, to his early years, to his professional freeskiing years. Not just great footage of him in action and taking helicopter flights into the mountains, but all the unused jokester moments inbetween, all the little moments that really show who he was as a person beyond just being a thrillerseeker. What they uncover is wonderful individual who would not want anyone to be sad and depressed by watching a movie about him, but rather joyfully entertained, laughing at his jokes, smiling at his achievements and greatest moments of humor. That's what he lived for.
One of the tricks he was known for pulling on his fellow crew, after a screwed up trick, was to hike back up and retry the same trick completely butt naked aside from his skis. He does it multiple times throughout this and it always gets a heartfelt laugh from everyone, both the audience watching and the people that are in the film. That's the kind of legacy he'll leave, made from the smiles on everyone's face even if it was because of some absurd trick he was pulling on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Shane is survived by his wife, Sherry, and their daughter Ayla, and was surrounded by one of the most supportive and caring group of friends anyone could have, always believing in him even when he went farther than anyone else ever did. Everyone gives their hearts to him in this, from his parents to his wife and every friend with him.
What makes McConkey such a phenomenal doc, aside from all the endless amounts of footage, is how much it transcends simply being a profile piece on this person and becomes inspiration for any and everyone watching it. The way they tell his life story includes many moments where Shane is literally describing his motivation; why he chooses to live on the edge like this, why he doesn't let fear stop him, why he's always driven to keep taking things further. Just hearing him speak then immediately take on the world in such amazing footage of every big mountain, antenna, bridge, cliff in the world, is an experience of its own. There's a great line in the film from skiing legend Scot Schmidt, who explains that people like Shane don't live like everyone else. Instead, his mentality is "I'm not afraid of death, I'm more afraid of not living fully."
Watching McConkey's impact on the entire sport and the community and realizing just how much this man meant to them is where the emotion takes over. I had to fight back tears often, of course when it gets to the worst part, but even before then. I found myself smiling and tearing up watching him achieve this success, watching them play his life story out each step at a time. By the end, although I had to wipe a way a few squirts, the filmmakers had realized that's not how Shane would have wanted it to end - so there's one more funny moment to remind us that's who he was. The kind of person who would want every last person who sees this movie to end with a smile, to be happy, to revel in his life and live their own lives in pursuit of joy.
It's not often I get to connect my personal history and family and the sport of skiing with film commentary, but I found myself lost in love with this documentary and can't stop thinking about it, which makes me want to talk about it. This is a film that is full of so much joy and love for life, that it's heartbreaking to realize it's about death. But it isn't really about death, it's about life, what it means to live it, and how one can take on a life that inspires and changes the world. Even if that means just living your life to the fullest in your own way. Anyone want to go skydiving with me? I look at people like Shane, my brother, and see inspiration, nothing but a love for life and taking complete advantage of every last second, no matter how long it lasts.
Co-directed by five filmmakers from Red Bull & Matchstick Productions - Rob Bruce, Scott Gaffney, Murray Wais, Steve Winter, David Zieff - McConkey is an exceptional documentary that explores the life of a man who became an icon and earned the title of "legend" for living every last second of his 39 years alive to the fullest, in every sense of that phrase and in the most extreme ways this planet has to offer. He is a shining example of a person who never let anything stand in the way of achieving his dream of living on the edge, always kept everyone around him happy, and died a hero whose name alone has and will go on to inspire entire generations of people all over the world. This doc lives up to that name, and everything he achieved.
If anything, this is the essential documentary on Shane McConkey: his life, what it meant, and how it can inspire. There is no better footage than what they have of the person who changed the very sport they were capturing. His friends and the crews themselves watched a man grow from a goofy skier to a superstar that forever touched this world. As tough as it must've been to make this, the final product is a masterpiece. My hope is that everyone can be as inspired by Shane as I am; as everyone else who knew him already has been. His story is meant to inspire us all, but he'd only want that if we were laughing and smiling along with him.
Alex's Tribeca Film Fest Rating: 10 out of 10