Two things are made abundantly clear while watching The Birth of Big Air, Jeff Tremaine’s entry in ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series: 1) If you ever doubted that freestyle BMXing is an actual “sport,” this movie will shut you up right quick; 2) It is a miracle that BMX legend Mat Hoffman is still alive to tell his own story. Which is funny, because in the first 15 minutes, as we see Hoffman landing one miraculous trick after another, I had the sneaking suspicion that Hoffman was simply born perfect and that talents like himself never had to suffer through the typical learning curves that we mortals must endure. But in the film’s middle section, things take a turn for the excruciatingly painful, at which point The Birth of Big Air becomes a face-covering montage of physical brutality that will make the toughest viewer flinch. Yet somehow, this only further proves that Hoffman is even more super-human for having survived so many near brushes with death. Either way, know this: If you are in any way squeamish, ***PROCEED WITH CAUTION***, for The Birth of Big Air contains some freaking disturbing ass footage.
Tremaine, along with producers Johnny Knoxville and Spike Jonze, came of age in the 1980s, when skateboarding and BMXing made its way from the margins into the mainstream. At the head of the BMX pack was Mat Hoffman, a teenager who burst onto the scene with a fury that wowed everyone around him, including his fellow competitors (many of them are interviewed here to explain just how revolutionary and game-changing Hoffman’s exploits actually were). In a time before the internet and worldwide connectivity, Hoffman practiced his new moves in the solitude of Oklahoma. He would then travel all over the world to blow the minds of those who were lucky enough to witness his latest feats of trickery.
In the early 1990s, BMX’s popularity died down and Hoffman was left searching for a way to continue to make a living doing what he loved. Realizing that no one was going to do it for him, he began designing bikes, organizing demos, and, most notably, building the world’s tallest quarter pipe, on which he was able to soar an impossible 20-plus feet through the air. His fierce determination and otherworldly talent helped to inspire a new generation of BMXers, which in turn inspired ESPN’s wildly successful X Games. Now, it’s an industry. Then, it was a small demo at a shopping mall or a town fair.
While this historical context is a valuable lesson for those viewers who choose to dismiss extreme sports for whatever irrational reason, the undeniable allure of The Birth of Big Air is the stock footage of when Hoffman is flying through the air, on his way to landing an impossible new trick or, on the other side of the spectrum, painfully crashing to the ground. The montage of injuries—including one moment in which Hoffman grins like a mischievous adolescent in a hotel room as he stitches up his sliced shin himself without any anesthesia!—will have you covering your face. But it’s when the story takes a turn and builds to the dramatic moment of Hoffman’s worst accident that your body will begin to physically react and try to lure you away from the screen. Mine did, but I simply had to keep watching (albeit through my fingers). The only saving grace here is that you know Hoffman doesn’t die, but for those excruciating few sequences, that doesn’t matter. Every time he lifts off that monstrous quarter pipe, the stakes have gotten a whole lot higher and the danger becomes palpable.
Stylistically, The Birth of Big Air doesn’t break any new ground, though ex-Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty’s score, combined with a punk rock soundtrack (featuring Fugazi), injects it with an appropriate energy level and tempo. But in content, it is undeniably compelling. As a history lesson on the state of the freestyle BMX industry and the emergence of the X Games into mainstream consciousness, it works just fine. But as a portrait of a legend, it is required viewing. Like his friend and hero Evel Knievel, Mat Hoffman isn’t just a world-class athlete. He’s a daredevil, a magician, a death-defying warrior that against all odds, manages to keep getting up, fall after fall, land after land, to fly another day.
— Michael Tully