Mat Hoffman is alive. Mat Hoffman is alive. Mat Hoffman is alive.
I found myself silently repeating those words, like a mantra, throughout The Birth Of Big Air, Jeff Tremaine’s hugely entertaining hour about legendary BMX daredevil Mat Hoffman, and I’m grateful Tremaine kept coming back to Hoffman interview footage as a reminder that he survived whatever stunt he was attempting. Because throughout much of the film, as Hoffman launched himself higher and higher off rickety homemade ramps, I confess to peering through webbed fingers, certain that this was going to be the stunt that finally killed him. As Hoffman says at the beginning of the documentary, “Every day I get up I think, ‘Today’s the day I could die.’” 2 comas, 21 broken bones, and 100+ concussions later, the kid miraculously stays in the picture.
Thus far, the strongest entries in 30 For 30 series have either revisited a familiar piece of sports history in a fresh way or revealed some subculture that thrives outside the mainstream sporting world. Not being terribly interested in the X-Games, I was unfamiliar with Hoffman’s exploits going into The Birth Of Big Air, so I was properly thunderstruck by his accomplishments, but just as interesting was the revelation that he mostly did it in the shadows. Even at a time of maximum exposure for him, Hoffman was still mostly relegated to BMX magazines and “big checks” for $2200 in prize money, a laughable sum in relation to his medical bills. And when the bottom dropped out on BMX, he had to innovate and sustain the sport in the wilderness, one jerry-rigged event at a time.
In addition to its myriad displays of gnarliness, The Birth Of Big Air has a great warmth to it, with luminaries of the sport lining up to pay their respects to the lovable maniac who paved the way to mainstream acceptance (and money). The big ramps that are now a permanent fixture of the arena-filling X-Games spectacle may take riders to newer heights, but in a sport rooted in DIY rebelliousness, Hoffman’s exploits seem purer and more awe-inspiring, and I think the other BMX-ers realize it. This documentary is an opportunity to re-introduce Hoffman to the wider world as an indomitable force of nature—a great, courageous, imaginative athlete; an entrepreneur; and a maniac so sick that even Evel Knievel is caught shaking his head in awe.
Though the opera/slo-mo credit sequence shows a little cinematic flair, The Birth Of Big Air doesn’t have the style of something like the skateboard documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys, but Hoffman’s exploits and goofily winning personality more than compensate for its cut-and-paste filmmaking. Lines like “If you’re going to have fun, you’re going to be knocked unconscious pretty often” are a good indication of what kind of person we’re dealing with here. Hoffman’s willingness to treat his body like he would a machine, with parts that can be worn down and broken and slapped back together again, speaks to an almost superhuman disregard for personal safety. It’s possible that another athlete could have done what Hoffman did; they’re just not crazy enough to operate without a safety net. In fact, Dave Mirra at one point tries to distance BMX as a sport to the sort of daredevil antics Hoffman was pushing himself to pull off. When you risk your life every day wheeling off ramps, at what point does it cease to be a sport?
The Birth Of Big Air doesn’t press the question. To a certain extent, BMX-ers are in the uncomfortable position of lionizing Hoffman while also distancing themselves from his rogue antics. The structure and legitimacy of the mega-ramp at X-Games wouldn’t exist without Hoffman’s bone-shattering, brain-bruising, spleen-bursting insanity. BMX-ers can’t be expected to follow his lead, but the film implies that the sport is standing on his ruptured shoulders.
• One unexpected element of Hoffman’s story: He had his parents’ full support. You’d assume his desire to push himself in an outlaw sport like BMX would involve rebelling against parents who are trying to hold him back. But it was remarkable to see their unwavering enthusiasm for his exploits, even in the face of death or grievous bodily harm.
• “There’s not an extremity he hasn’t broken in a violent manner.”
• If you’re keeping track at home, Hoffman’s 21 broken bones still puts him 16 behind Knievel’s record.
• That footage of Hoffman trying and failing to beat a record for Wide World Of Sports is one of the more difficult sequences I can recall sitting through.