Stuntman is a more modest effort than similar docu-efforts, but greatly benefits from Braun’s sincerity and likability.
On September 8, 1974, with a ton of hype and media fanfare, daredevil Evel Knievel tried — and spectacularly failed — to jump the mile-wide Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, in a homemade steam-powered rocket designed by a former engineer named Robert Truax. Knievel’s parachute deployed early and sent him crashing into the canyon. His body was mostly undamaged, but his legendary ego took a beating.
Stuntman is not that story. Instead, this good-natured bit of documentary ephemera is the story of Eddie Braun, a professional stunt performer since the early ’80s who names Knievel as his personal inspiration, as he signs up to pilot a new and improved rocket built by Truax’s son in a re-attempt on the Snake River Canyon jump. It’s an inherently dangerous, possibly deadly, and unquestionably stupid thing to do, but the film does a good job of bringing those stakes home without making Braun seem like either a wanton thrill-seeker or egomaniac.
Mostly, that’s because he seems like a decidedly nice dude. We see him talk about the risks of his day job, along with footage of some nasty spills he’s taken in his years in front of the camera. We talk to his wife and kids, to whom he is a clearly devoted husband and father. And we talk to his colleagues (like the legendary Buddy Joe Hooker), who seem to have nothing but kind words for him. He says he’s really afraid of heights. The locals near the canyon have bad memories of Knievel’s stunt, which drew a huge, unruly crowd that trashed the place, and Eddie insists that he wants no part of such a thing. And we also spend a lot of time with him insisting on as much safety as can be afforded a crazy stunt like this. Indeed, Stuntman sort of recalls Free Solo, that documentary about Alex Honnold, the incredibly focused and talented mountain climber trying to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan monolith without any safety equipment. That movie portrayed Alex as some sort of modern-day samurai, laser-focused on an amazing achievement as opposed to the reality, which was that he used his suicidal audacity as an excuse to further boost his tremendous ego and justify his horrible personality. Eddie is not Alex.
Director Kurt Mattila admittedly overdoes it on the sappy music, and definitely pads out this straightforward story to over 80 minutes; the climactic rocket flight could stand to lose some obviously staged coverage, and would have benefitted from a few single-shot replays showing the entire event all the way through from two or three dedicated angles. But ultimately, Stuntman is a sincerely affecting and tense document of this notably more humble undertaking. Good for Eddie.
You can currently stream Kurt Mattila’s Stuntman on Disney+.