Available on VOD from Mon 22 April 2019
In 2012, Chris Lemons was aboard a DSV (deep submergence vehicle) conducting routine repairs on the seabed when his umbilical (supplying heat and air) snapped and he had to wait under water with only a back up supply until rescue. Last Breath began as an oil industry safety video, but Chris teamed up with Richard Da Costa to embark on something with broader appeal.
Co-director Alex Parkinson has over a decade of experience in boiler-plate reality-based content, from rivers to tractors to tribes, and here he delivers an effective triumvirate of talking heads, recreations and undersea cinematography, all of which is bolstered with some subtle visual effects to keep the tension ratcheted up. Richard Da Costa’s corporate background no doubt assisted in securing the necessary investment from the various fact-based funders to provide the undeniably realistic undersea environs and on-board shenanigans.
Like compelling drama, successful documentaries require memorable characters and the doc explains that professional diving is full of such personas. Dave Youasa seems to revel in his retelling of how emotionally and psychologically detached he was from the tragic events unfolding beneath the churning North Sea. With startling pragmatism, he explains that upon realising that Chris wasn’t dead, his thoughts turned to anger at the perverse betrayal he had experienced having already prepared for his death. The reasoning that he “wasn’t my best friend… he wasn’t my wife or kids” introduces a moral complexity and reminds the viewer of the stoicism required to do this kind of work.
The antithesis of Youasa is his colleague, the bellman Duncan Allock. He experiences the event as he would a tragedy in the family: praying that soon-to-be-wed Chris is not dead and battling to save him once he is recovered, whilst Youasa looks on implacably. At times his indifference almost seems like an act, but you can’t quite shake the feeling that when they met Youasa, the filmmakers rubbed their hands in glee.
These incidents are captured through talking head interviews, camcorder material, black box footage and excellently mounted reconstructions. The recreations of the seabed in a Fort William barometric facility allow for much needed renderings of the crucial moments of the rescue: the umbilical snapping, reaching Chris, returning Chris to the bell. The similarities to The Abyss are no coincidence and whilst insisting that they sought to avoid sensationalising the event, the directors have constructed a pseudo-twist which undermines the sombre material somewhat and manipulates those who were unfamiliar with the original outcome.
Ill-advised twist aside, Last Breath is an efficient re-telling of a remarkable personal story, with a likeable protagonist and entertaining collaborators. Fact-based content tends to focus on the environmental impact of the industry, but these filmmakers have no particular agenda regarding the circumstances of the incident. They seek to illuminate the social dynamics and personality types required when plying a trade under the risk of extreme stress.