What Drives a Man to Challenge the ‘Angry Sky’?

Long before Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who set the Stratos jump record, there was maverick high altitude jumper Nick Piantanida.

“I just watched the balloon go up and I said goodbye, ‘Goodbye, Nick.'” As Janice Piantanida Post remembers watching her husband’s hot air balloon soar into the sky, you see her waving. The camera starts low on a photo of her back: her coat is orange, her green-gloved hand held high against a grainy blue sky. The shot is romantic, surely, and also eerie, for it’s the start of Nick’s third and final attempt to set a super-sonic free fall record.

The shot is dramatic too, coming near the end of Angry Sky. ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 documentary traces Nick and Janice’s story, his determination and her unfailing support. Married to “the most handsome person I had ever met in my life” when she was just 17, Janice has had decades to think about her goodbye back on May Day 1966, and yet her narration here, like her narration throughout the film, is tinged with passion and affection, her voice indicating as much about her husband’s ambition, their relationship, and the times that shaped them as any of the film’s lively images of “a man attempting the impossible”.

These images indicate Nick’s “legendary charisma”, as a friend has it, his rugged good looks and his energy. In snapshots and amateur movie footage, he appears to be constantly in motion, whether playing basketball in high school or driving trucks as an adult, playing with his three children or setting up his frankly astounding jumps.

The film opens not on Nick, but on Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who, in 2012, set the Stratos jump record that Nick meant to set. While Baumgartner pays homage to his precursor, the differences between their efforts could not be more stark. The images of Baumgartner’s free fall are gorgeous, wide and mobile and precise, splashed all over the internet and MTV and financed by Red Bull. Nick, by contrast, worked “on a shoestring”, seeking contributions from whomever he could and putting together teams to work on the machinery (the parachute and gondola) and the pressure suit. That these teams weren’t necessarily responsible to each other, or even working very closely together sounds strange today, but they were committed to their projects (side projects to their real life jobs) with attitudes born of a fantastic sort of “right stuff”.

The film traces the steps of each of Nick’s three jumps, starting with the first in 1965. His brother Vern looks back now with mix of fondness and regret (“You would never tell Nick he can’t do something,” he says, “because then he’d do it”). Once he discovered the thrills of parachuting, Nick began spending long hours at the Lakewood Parachute Center, teaching other skydivers to earn the time for his own practice. He soon set his sights on breaking the world free fall record, says Craig Ryan (author of Magnificent Failure: Free Fall From the Edge of Space). When he needed a certain number of hours in a hot air balloon but couldn’t afford them, Janice recalls, he took her along on an illicit ride, “borrowing” the balloon until he reached the time he needed. “It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she remembers.

Here and elsewhere, perhaps especially in showing the three jumps that weren’t documented very exactly, Angry Sky offers a series of images that include reenactments. Some help you to imagine Janice’s excitement, for instance, her reenactor’s face smiling widely as the balloon lands and they climb out. Others convey the tension of what was then unknown and also undocumented, as when preparing for the jump with pre-breathing exercises (to remove nitrogen from the blood), and then, in a next instant, kissing his wife goodbye.

As it helps to blur the distinctions between the film’s archival imagery and its reenactments, this sweet image suggests how complicated emotional realities shaped this story of challenges to material limits. Recalling that she’s been asked repeatedly how she could have let Nick do what he did, go up in that balloon in his pressure suit three times, she says, “My answer was I couldn’t change this man.” Neither did she want to, as she describes her choices. Though she remembers being afraid and asking Nick to stop, to “start living a normal life” with her and their children, she remembers as well how the mission, as he saw it, was everything. “I believe I could have talked him out of it, the most important person in his life,” she says, “but I think I might have destroyed him along the way, and I may have destroyed our marriage.”

Instead, Janice supported Nick, as did the small ragtag coterie who worked on different aspects of each attempt. Aeronautical engineers Lucy and Karl Stefan recall this first jump as they now sit in their home, surrounded by personal photos and bookshelves. Holding hands, they describe the steep “learning curve” they had in designing a balloon for Nick, and also, Karl says, “All these news people running back and forth, right away, thinking they were the most important thing in the world. Those guys just really were almost uncontrollable.” Lucy smiles, “You’re talking to news people right now, dear.”

Indeed. The interview is charming, helping you to grasp the lack of protocol for anyone working on the project, the lack of experience, and the reshaping of the story in the film’s own process. On one level, Jeff Tremaine’s film is another of 30 for 30’s terrific excavations of little known history, a look at a past that few viewers remember, even as they might know all about the Red Bull version of Nick’s jump, 46 years later. It’s also a set of personal stories, told by Nick’s friends and family members, wondering, still, exactly how the last jump went so wrong, whether it was a mechanical malfunction or human error, a matter of poor planning or unforeseeable.

That the film cannot provide these answers, and even more to the point, that it can’t provide documentary footage for all of its story, point to the ways that dreams and realties might be similarly imagined, similarly powerful.

RATING 8 / 10