Someone is going to die. You know that, or at least feel it, from the opening moments of The Deepest Breath, the engrossing documentary that has ranked in Netflix’s Top 10 for the past two weeks. As she hurtles down a narrow road toward her latest attempt, the world-champion free diver Alessia Zecchini, a legend in one of the world’s most dangerous sports, is asked if she ever thinks about death. She doesn’t even wait a moment before she responds with a flat no. “I think if someone has to die, they will.”
It’s not the kind of clip you put at the beginning of a movie where everything turns out all right, especially when you follow it with harrowing real-time footage of one of Zecchini’s dives. In an unbroken minute-and-a-half shot, we watch her plunge straight down toward the bottom of the ocean, hundreds of feet deep, and then head back to the surface, with only the sound of a slowing heartbeat on the soundtrack. She’s almost there when her momentum slows, and safety divers rush in to lift her the last few feet. It takes a moment for the camera to find her face when she’s back above the water, and when it does, her face is slack, her eyes blank. Has death caught up with her so quickly? What, exactly, did we just watch?
It takes a long time for director Laura McGann’s movie to circle back to that moment, and more than 90 minutes for it to answer the question it’s been forcing us to ponder since the beginning: Is she OK? It’s a question a quick search could resolve—and one, fair warning, I’m going to answer in the next paragraph—but The Deepest Breath does its best to keep us guessing, and concerned. Both Zecchini and Stephen Keenan, her coach and safety diver, appear only in archival footage, as if they’re no longer around to tell their own stories, and their family and friends talk about them only in the past tense.
The thing is, only one of them is dead. As was reported in August 2017, Keenan died bringing Zecchini to the surface after a particularly risky dive into the notorious “Blue Hole” off Dahab, Egypt, which one diver in The Deepest Breath calls “the most dangerous dive site on Earth.” It’s a particularly challenging feat because it involves following a safety rope straight down and then letting go, swimming into and out of a cave in the pitch dark. Due to a tiny but tragic miscalculation, Zecchini missed the rope as she came out of the cave, and Keenan was not there to guide her to it, and by the time they connected and found their way to the surface, it was too late for both to survive.
Zecchini, now 31, does appear in The Deepest Breath, but only as the story reaches this point. Just as the need to know what happens becomes unbearable, McGann cuts to a shot of Zecchini, her body still and silent, her eyes brimming with tears as if she’s reliving the incident along with us. It’s a stunning and powerful revelation, and yet the moment after it washed over me, I started to feel uneasy about it. It would be one thing if Zecchini had simply declined to take part in the film. But she was alive and willing, and holding back that fact for the sake of effect didn’t sit well with me.
It turns out that not only was Zecchini interviewed for the film but took part in reenactments, including returning to the Blue Hole. McGann has explained that keeping the present-day Zecchini out of most of the movie was partly a matter of limiting the audience to what the people in the movie knew at the time it happened. But she also says it was a matter of making the movie more “cinematic and immersive,” and that’s where it becomes difficult to go along with what it does not seem unfair to label as the ruse. The movie isn’t just telling us the story as it happened. It’s using the vocabulary of documentary to mislead its audience. Any seasoned documentary-watcher starts getting suspicious when a central character is conspicuously absent from the lineup of talking heads, but I can live with that, especially when the stakes are low. It’s less ethically fraught when Searching for Sugar Man keeps a long-vanished musician out of the limelight for most of its running time, mirroring the decades he disappeared from the public eye, only to have him turn up on camera in the final act. But that’s not the same as lingering on a framed photo of Zecchini in her father’s house as he thinks back on the moment of her birth, creating the impression that a proud parent’s display is actually a memorial.
You could argue that because Keenan’s death is a matter of public record, the movie isn’t obligated to acknowledge it up front, and that it would damage the story to “spoil” the ending in advance. David Grann doesn’t tell you who the murderers are in Killers of the Flower Moon for hundreds of pages, in part because doing so might make the people around them seem naïve for not knowing what the reader already does. But it’s entirely possible to build a gripping story around the how and the why, rather than the what. Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild prints the fate of Christopher McCandless right on the cover, and Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love—which, like The Deepest Breath, is an archive-driven story about lovers bound by their mutual pursuit of a dangerous profession—tells you upfront that you are looking at the last day of Katia and Maurice Krafft’s lives. It doesn’t diminish your emotional involvement to know the time and date of the Kraffts’ deaths in advance, but it does shift the register of that response, from gnawing suspense to tragic sorrow. The Deepest Breath gambles that you’ll be so blown away by its big reveal that you’ll banish any thought of how it was arranged. But as affected as I was, I’m not sure it was worth it.