I’m an enthusiast of diving but also, perhaps oddly, of true stories about diving disasters and near-disasters. Years ago when I first learnt to dive at a conservation outpost on a tiny Fijian island, one of the few books lying around was the absolutely brilliant Shadow Divers. Sadly not all that well-known outside of the diving community, it’s a must-read within it, and especially amongst those who are interested in (whether or not they actually practice it) technical diving and particularly diving at the limits of what is safe or even possible. I devoured the book, and then subsequently re-read it when I got into tec diving myself, along with every other book ever written about, not to put to fine a point on it, terrible diving accidents.
Anyway, all of that is by way of a precursor to why I was naturally very interested to watch Last Breath when I saw it appear on Netflix. Like other books and indeed documentaries that I’ve enjoyed, it’s about a serious diving accident although unlike others it’s not about amateur diving, but about the very different world of commercial diving, and specifically saturation diving.
The documentary combines interviews, real footage and recreations to revisit an incident where the support ship for a dive crew began drifting, tearing off one of the divers’ umbilical cords and leaving them without heat, light, radio contact or (crucially) air other than the tiny amount they had in their escape tanks.
It’s clear from the way the documentary is structured that they don’t want to reveal the eventual outcome until later on, and I’ll respect that by attempting not to spoil it in this review.
From a documentary-makers point of view, it’s a godsend that there is considerable real-life footage of the incident, recorded from cameras inside the diving bell as well as the divers’ helmet-mounted cameras, plus recorded radio transmissions. This, along with the usual talking-head interviews and a very small amount of reconstruction, makes for a good mix of footage and gets across the events pretty effectively. I did feel at a couple of points that it might have benefited from some sort of diagram, animation, or graphic to represent the relative positions of the divers, the bell, the ship and the structure they were working on – particularly once things started to go wrong and it all becomes a bit confusing. However, I can understand them wanting to keep things simple, and ultimately this is a drama about human responses to a crisis, not the finer details of what happened.
That’s a key point here, I think, because unlike some similar disaster documentaries, this really isn’t about the nitty gritty of what went wrong, who is to blame and who made good or bad decisions. The viewer is left with the impression, probably true, that this was a largely unforeseeable technical failure with catastrophic consequences, and everyone pretty much did what little they could do as well as they could do it.
So, instead of any real sense of being outraged or impressed by anybody’s actions, I was left mainly with that sweaty-palmed sense of horror at how utterly horrendous deep-sea saturation diving is, even at the best of times, and all the more so when things go wrong. I found some aspects of the documentary reminiscent of Apollo 13, oddly enough, and there’s definitely a parallel between how completely cut off deep-sea divers are, and astronauts. If your body is saturated with nitrogen at 11ata, you might as well be on the moon for all the chance you have of safely returning to the surface in a hurry if things go wrong.
And that brings me to another point about the documentary, which is that it largely took the details of saturation diving – what it is, how it works, why people do it – for granted, and did very little to explain them. If you already understand it, you’ll be grateful for not having to sit through endless dumbed-down explanations of decompression sickness. If you don’t already understand it, on the other hand, you might find you watch this documentary with a few different Wikipedia articles open…
Overall, this little documentary is engrossing for the human drama, and some fascinating characters; most notably the occasionally-emotional father-figure of one of the divers, and his fantastically unemotional and matter-of-fact (but actually rather heroic) colleague who was in the water with the victim when the accident took place. On the other hand, it doesn’t do much to answer any questions about how things happened, why they happened, and why the outcome was what it was. That might be fine, or it might leave you feeling a little unsatisfied.