Sir Richard Branson’s out-sized hankering for adventure is matched only by his talent for self-promotion. “Don’t Look Down” focuses on Branson as balloonist, using previously unseen footage of his daredevil hot air flights together with archival footage and interviews with the major players, and while the achievements have an undeniable thrill, the documentary needs trimming. Director Daniel Gordon, best known for his superb North Korean trilogy, seems to be a helmer for hire here, delivering a solid, and solidly engaging film that nevertheless feels like an extended promo for the Branson brand. TV and streaming sites will be the likely takers.
Who would deny the romance of a hot air balloon? Their majestic beauty is an understandable lure, so combined with the challenge of breaking world records (not to mention the nice big expanse of canvas crying out for the Virgin logo), they seem custom designed to tickle Branson’s fancy. Plus the timing was right in 1987, just three years after he launched Virgin Airlines, to pull off a fantastic stunt guaranteed to get his company’s name in all the papers. Branson hadn’t flown a hot air balloon before, but he brought in balloon pilot Per Lindstrom and set off to cross the Atlantic.
“Don’t Look Down” details every step of the journey, from balloon construction to the flight itself. Near disaster dogged their path as they crossed the ocean from Maine to Scotland, and Lindstrom nearly drowned, but the record was broken and, most importantly, Branson’s feat was on everyone’s lips. Two years later a larger challenge beckoned: the Pacific. The first attempt was a non-starter but in 1991 Branson and Lindstrom managed the impossible by flying from Japan to Canada in 46 hours. Much to the businessman’s chagrin, their achievement was overshadowed by news of the First Gulf War (it’s terribly provoking when pesky military conflicts hog one’s limelight, but certain things really are out of the hands of mere mortals).
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Much of the in-gondola footage shot from the balloons truly is spectacular, and Gordon does a fine job building momentum by balancing this with news footage and talking heads ranging from balloon experts to the indispensable weather consultant to Branson’s proud yet reserved mother. However, there’s an inevitable sense of repetition, and especially the failed Pacific attempt could be more tightly retold. Occasional dramatic recreations are unfortunate and threaten to turn the documentary into History Channel filler, and while the use of b&w looks nice, it serves no purpose apart from varying the visuals a bit.