Film Review: Don't Look Down

This traditionally-made documentary focuses on two of the record-breaking adventures undertaken by England’s Sir Richard Branson, the derring-do founder of Virgin Airlines and the entire Virgin Group of over 400 companies.
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Thanks to some long-ignored video footage, Don’t Look Down can show us exactly what it was like to be Sir Richard Branson, the reckless adventurer, when he and his partner, Per Lindstrand, set out to break world records in the esoteric sport of hot-air ballooning. Their first triumph was in early 1987 when Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Flyer flew across the Atlantic from the U.S. to Scotland. And, although the craft nearly made a crash landing in Northern Island and again in the Irish sea, it still beat the previous record by two hours.  Four years later Branson and Lindstrand were at it again, breaking another speed record by guiding their hot air balloon into a fast-moving jet stream that carried them across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Vancouver.

Curiously, these incredible achievements are little known and/or remembered today, which is probably due to the fact that so many of the world’s movers and shakers are currently engaged in many other, and far less daring diversions in Silicon Valley and Wall Street and such. So the makers of Don’t Look Down must be commended for reminding us what real adventure looks like, and also for finally giving Richard Branson his due as an old-style, world class adventurer. Until now, only Branson and Lindstrand and the Virgin technical team knew about the life-and-death dangers the two men faced in their trans-oceanic flights. The rest of us are only finding out now because someone dug up the old video that gives a close-up view of what was going on inside the pressurized capsule shared by the two pilots during the balloon flights.  One of their scariest moments came when the balloon inexplicably began to gain altitude and could not be stopped, despite Lindstrand’s frantic efforts. Both men were aware that at an altitude as high as 40,000 feet, the entire balloon and capsule would have “imploded.” Luck was with them then—and since, because both Branson and Linstrand are very much alive and appear in this movie as they are today, over twenty years later.

Perhaps the most stunning thing about all this is how very casual and cavalier both Branson and Lindstrand are in describing their near-death experiences—such as when Lindstrand unintentionally “dove” into the Irish Sea and left Branson quite alone in a careening craft that was totally out of control. And both men assumed the other was dead or soon would be. Despite the near-disasters, the same team decided, in the early '90s, to build the world’s largest hot-air balloon and fly it the entire 6,700 miles across the Pacific Ocean. This trip was also recorded on a video camera from inside the capsule—and again there were moments when catastrophe seemed imminent.    

In watching Don’t Look Down so close to the time when an American billionaire with no political or civic achievements was elected President of the United States, one can’t help but compare Donald Trump to Richard Branson, another brash billionaire, albeit one who has a solid record of business and sports achievements and has proven to be an intelligent, thoughtful, creative and wildly successful entrepreneur, adventurer and philanthropist. And there’s another thing we can’t help but wonder: Would the UK be interested in a trade?

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