Film & TV

Film Review: ‘The Deepest Breath’

An extreme sport that treads a fine line between derring-do and bonkers insanity
BY Michael Clark TIMEJuly 18, 2023 PRINT

PG | 1h 48m | Documentary, Biography, Sports | 19 July 2023 (USA)

Before watching the new documentary “The Deepest Breath,” I’d never heard of “freediving,” and I would consider myself reasonably well-informed when it comes to sports. After watching “The Deepest Breath,” I wouldn’t, under any circumstances whatsoever ever attempt to try it, and would go far in trying to dissuade others to avoid it as well.

An extreme sport in every sense of the word, it has resulted (according to the film) in more fatalities than those who have died trying to climb Mt. Everest. Freediving regularly pushes the bounds of human endurance beyond their breaking points.

"The Deepest Breath"
A scene from “The Deepest Breath.” (Netflix)

Rookie writer-director Laura McGann knows she’s working with pure gold here. The only thing more compelling than witnessing individuals succeed in conquering the elements is watching them fail and McGann offers up a hearty mix of both for the duration.

It’s kind of like why people watch the Indy 500 every year. Half of them want to see who wins and the other half wants to see who fails to go the distance, and McGann gets this without turning the production into a tawdry, gawking, rubbernecking, wreck-on-the-highway manner. It’s clear she wants everyone featured in the film to succeed, but doesn’t shy away from giving failure equal screen time.

The first five minutes are a perfect indicator of how the rest of the film will play out. Italian-born diver Alessia Zecchini is shown descending far below the surface of the water in real-time. For two-plus minutes, Ms. Zecchini is seen going further and further down a lead rope to a certain point, then turning around and returning to the surface for a round trip between 623 and 656 feet.

To put this into perspective, that’s over four times as far as the Statue of Liberty is tall.

Hold Your Breath

The catch here is—and this is the crux of freediving—Ms. Zecchini and all of those involved in the sport are doing this while holding their breath. The Guinness World Record for holding one’s breath underwater belongs to Budimir Sobat, a Croatian freediver who did so for 24 minutes and 37 seconds; however, he was stationary while doing so.

Although it is rare for a single freedive to last longer than four or five minutes, the oxygen being held in the diver’s lungs quickly turns into CO2 and the pressure of the deepening waters causes the lungs to shrink to the size (again, as stated in the film) of a softball. This is referred to as “lung squeeze.”

Descending is the easy part; it is the ascension where things start to get sticky, oftentimes resulting in blackouts and, in some cases, death.

"The Deepest Breath."
Alessia Zecchini (L) and Stephen Keenan in “The Deepest Breath.” (Netflix)

Parallel Paths

At the heart of Ms. McGann’s narrative are the parallel paths being followed by Ms. Zecchini and the Irish-born and raised Stephen Keenan. While Ms. Zecchini knew she was destined to become a star freediver since she was a toddler, Mr. Keenan had no idea of his life’s calling until he was well into his 20s.

Diving competitively since 2005 at the age of 13, Ms. Zecchini began competing professionally as soon as she could do so legally (age 21), she went on to amass a staggering 37 world freediving records, including the deepest female dive in history (351 feet).

During much of this same time, Mr. Keenan was aimlessly traipsing across the African continent, absorbing the various cultures, and enjoying himself thoroughly but was still unable to identify his life’s mission.

"The Deepest Breath"
The Mecca of global dive locations: the “Blue Hole,” in “The Deepest Breath.” (Netflix)

This all changed towards the end of Mr. Keenan’s long trek with his arrival in Dahab, Egypt, a small town on the coast of the Red Sea. This is also the location of the “Blue Hole,” the “Mecca” of global dive locations. In short order, Mr. Keenan took up the sport, opened his own dive shop, and later began offering lessons and training. One of his training clients turned out to be Ms. Zecchini.

At about the 75-minute mark, Ms. McGann somewhat departs from the traditional documentary template by taking it in a mystery thriller direction with romantic overtones, and most of it works.

She is able to capture the cheery and unselfish attitude of the tightly knit freedive community with touching delicacy and ends the movie on a bittersweet, supremely inspirational, life-affirming note.

Prepare to be deeply moved.

"The Deepest Breath"
A documentary about freediving, “The Deepest Breath” is directed by Laura McGann. (Netflix)

“The Deepest Breath” is presented in English and multiple subtitled foreign languages, and debuts on Netflix on July 19.

‘The Deepest Breath’
Director: Laura McGann
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: July 19, 2023
Rating: 4 out of 5

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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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