The Deepest Breath

By: Adam Freed

For some people, living simply isn’t enough to feel alive.  History is overflowing with thrill seeking explorers who test the limits of the human body, of safety, of sanity.  Thankfully for audiences satisfied scratching their dopamine itch vicariously through the lunacy of others, documentarians have made an impressive run capturing the exploits of elite performers, hellbent on greatness in the face of certain death.  Maniacal as it may seem, there are few fictional endeavors, save the recent work of Tom Cruise, that can simulate the level of rapturous engagement provided within the documentary world of the fearless.  Netflix and writer director Laura McGann team to present The Deepest Breath, a film perched firmly amongst the greatest in adrenaline inducing documentary lore.  

Maximizing the majestic underwater cinematography of Tim Cragg, The Deepest Breath invites couch dwelling explorers to experience the harrowing world of freediving.  The endeavor of diving to the greatest depths possible on a single breath may not feel impossible until Cragg shows rather than tells just how black and isolated the ocean becomes at one hundred meters below the surface.  Every bit the dopamine doppelganger of Academy Award winner Free Solo (2018), yet rather than experiencing Alex Honnold’s ascent to free climbing glory, audiences spiral downward with Italian freediving champion Alessia Zecchini on her descent into hell on Earth.  The faint of heart need not apply as Zecchini chases world records whilst literally warding off her oxygen depleted demise.   To film the majestic act of freediving is a physical achievement, to do so while simultaneously establishing a depth of character is the real jewel in McGann’s crown.  There is nothing about Alessia Zecchini that screams superhero despite her heroic feats.  Laura McGann captures the freediver’s humanity and vulnerability to such an extent that rather than awaiting greatness, audiences brace for the inevitable. 

It seems eerily effortless how closely Zecchini’s story fits the lineage of powerhouse character studies like Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) and the high wire antics of Philippe Petit captured in Man on Wire (2008).  What elevates Netflix’s aquatic documentary even further is the comforting stoicism of narrator David Attenborough.  No stranger to documentary narration, Attenborough (Planet Earth) elevates the film to a heightened level of prestige with the mere presence of his distinct vocal prowess.  For a small percentage of Earth’s inhabitants, today is nothing more than the latest opportunity to test themselves against the will of the gods.  The present is the only chance available to stretch the boundaries of what humanity considers possible.  For everyone else, Laura McGann’s The Deepest Breath is about as close as one can come to a true test of their own mortality without having to hold their breath.

Target Score: 8/10  A bold and beautiful character study that blurs the line between courage and obsession.  A must see for lovers of documentary filmmaking.