The new documentary on the life and death of legendary big mountain skier Shane McConkey, “McConkey,” premiered Sunday at the TriBeca Film Festival, and the most striking moment came not during the film itself, but during the Q&A session that followed.
An audience member asked the assembled filmmakers if the process of making the movie made them feel the risks McConkey took were “worth it.” JT Holmes, a McConkey protégé who was a close friend and with McConkey the day he died took the microphone and without hesitation replied, “Absolutely not.”
The moment resonated not just because of the edge in Holmes’ voice, which betrayed the sense of loss that still burns four years after McConkey’s death while attempting a wing suit-enabled ski BASE jump in the Italian Dolomites. It also drove home that the film, despite the detailed, complex portrait it draws of a man it clearly celebrates, wisely doesn’t try to provide an answer.
None of this is to say that “McConkey” lacks striking moments; it’s packed with them — and not just the kind that we’ve come to expect from one of skiing’s most iconic personalities. Matchstick Productions, which produced the film along with Red Bull Media House, brought it’s entire 17-year archive of McConkey footage to bear, ensuring that everything from his massive naked spread eagle in the Crested Butte backcountry to his defining ski BASE jumps from Switzerland’s Eiger are shown with equal reverence.
The footage, much of it shot by McConkey himself and never seen before, tracks his development from racing to freestyle to freeskiing to BASE jumping — and the eventual synthesis of all of them which allowed him to ultimately transcend skiing altogether. Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, and Travis Pastrana all sat for interviews and express the awe with which they witnessed McConkey’s boundary pushing.
If you’ve never seen McConkey tackle massive Alaskan peaks with just a handful of critically executed Super G turns or soar off thousand-foot Norwegian fjords into freefall, you’re understanding of what’s possible will be rewired. If you’ve watched him for years, you’ll be cheering all over again.
But it’s the moments we don’t expect that lend this story an emotional weight previously missing from the years of ski movies that documented McConkey’s accomplishments and made him a legend. “McConkey” casts an unflinching eye on the complicated relationship he had with his father Jim McConkey, himself a ski legend from the 60s who was frequently absent during his son’s youth.
The film spends considerable time detailing that youth, when his athletic gifts were nearly drowned in adolescent struggles to feel comfortable in his own skin and not flunk out of school. It delights in his often hilarious (and usually naked) antics without ducking the fact that those antics betrayed an immaturity that lasted longer than maybe it should have.
Most striking of all, the film gives voice to McConkey’s wife Sherry, a brave and charismatic woman who has been left to protect her husband’s legacy even while coming to terms with the massive hole that remains in the life of her and their daughter Ayla.
“McConkey” faithfully profiles a skier who changed our understanding of what’s possible on snow while revolutionizing the skis themselves, all of which was simply prelude to a story about a man who learned how to fly. That the story becomes an Icarus tale makes it accessible enough to earn inclusion into one of the world’s most respected film festivals, but it also forces the movie to ask questions that defy easy answers.
McConkey was an inspiration to a generation of skiers and an elite community who regularly redefine the edge of human performance, but were the risks he took “worth it”?
In response to the audience member’s question, Holmes went on to acknowledge that McConkey’s obsessive drive to explore both the mountains and flight was something innate within him that can be appreciated but not explained. It’s a similar sentiment to the one Sherry expresses in the movie when she says that she couldn’t cage McConkey any more than she could an eagle.
There is joy and wonder in this movie, but it is tempered with loss and pain. At the end of the day, it’s not the role of the film to answer the question. The fact that it so movingly manages to ask it makes “McConkey” a remarkable accomplishment.