September 18, 2012; the commercial engineering ship Bibby Topaz is 115 miles off the coast of Scotland in the North Sea, assigned with testing the safety of a drilling manifold in the Huntington Oil Field. Descending in the diving bell are the relatively inexperienced Chris Lemons, the stoic David Yuasa (so much so, his nickname is "Vulcan"), and Lemons's mentor and father-figure Duncan Allcock. As the men descend, the Topaz is hit with bad weather, although not bad enough to cancel the dive (with dive supervisor Craig Frederick explaining, "we were at the limits of diving, but it wasn't undivable"). As Lemons and Yuasa begin working, Allcock remains in the bell to feed out the divers' "umbilicals"; a mass of cables that brings them warm water, light, and oxygen, and keeps them connected to the Topaz's computer and AV systems. At a depth of 300 feet, in pitch blackness, with ten times atmospheric pressure and temperatures just above freezing, without an umbilical, a diver can't last long. With the Topaz locked into position by its Dynamic Positioning (DP) system, everything is going well until the system inexplicably fails, something no one on the boat had ever seen happen. With winds now reaching 35 knots, causing 18-foot swells, the Topaz quickly begins to drift out of position, dragging the bell with it, which in turn drags the men via their umbilicals. Frederick immediately orders Lemons and Yuasa back to the bell, but Lemons's umbilical snags on the manifold, and after being pulled taut, eventually snaps. With only five minutes of emergency oxygen in his reserve tanks, and cut off from all contact with the bell and the surface, his crewmates are horrified to realise it will take them at least 30 minutes to return to their position and try to find him. That's if they can even regain control of the Topaz's DP at all.
Although the talking head interviews are a little flat, the rest of Last Breath looks great, with the reconstructions so well done (it helps that the actual participants play themselves) that they blend seamlessly with the footage shot from the divers' helmet-cams and the Topaz's cameras. The film opens with "first-person" camcorder footage of Lemons giving a tour of the Topaz, explained naturally insofar as he and his fiancée, Morag Martin, tended to send one-another videos rather than writing emails or letters. This inculcates the audience immediately into the milieu, insofar as Lemons is literally explaining the workings of the job, especially important in introducing the concept of saturation diving. Once the repair begins, the film adopts an almost pseudo-science-fiction tone, with the foregrounding of unfamiliar equipment and complex ship computer systems, reminding me of something like The Abyss (1989) or Leviathan (1989).
Also aesthetically important is the score by Paul Leonard-Morgan. Is he aping Hans Zimmer? Absolutely. But there are worse composers to emulate, and it's still an extremely effective score, a little overwrought in places, but it does its job admirably, especially in a scene which sees Yuasa set out to try to find Lemons, with Parkinson and Da Costa using Yuasa's narration over shots of each interviewee silently reflecting on the incident, and Morgan's evocative score swelling in the background.
The film's structure is both its greatest strength and, perhaps, it's most significant failing. It's difficult to discuss this aspect without spoilers, but essentially, Parkinson and Da Costa introduce a twist of sorts in the last act, and the documentary then literally rewinds to give us the perspective of an interviewee we haven't seen up to this point. It's both an interesting and irritating technique; interesting insofar as you don't usually see that kind of structural trickery in a documentary, irritating because it's wholly unnecessary. The directors would have been better served to simply trust in the strength of their story, which is more than able to stand on its own, sans embellishments. And although it isn't as damaging as a similar example in Three Identical Strangers (2018), primarily because the surrounding material is handled more competently, with less crass emotional manipulation, it is nevertheless an ill-advised technique to introduce in a form supposed to eschew sensationalism and narrative chicanery. This is compounded by the fact that it's easy to see it coming, and anyone who spends more than 20 seconds looking into the film will have the twist spoiled, rendering it pointless at best, distracting at worst; running the risk of lessening the impact of the psychological effects that the incident had on the people involved. On the other hand, there's no denying that the structure adds to the mounting tension, I'm just not 100% convinced that the trade-off is worth it.
This misstep notwithstanding, Last Breath is an excellent piece of documentary filmmaking. Although it's not quite up to the dizzying standards of something like One Day in September (1999), Ônibus 174 (2002), Touching the Void (2003), or Under the Wire (2018), there's still a lot to recommend it. Combining elements of the survival documentary subgenre with the aesthetic tropes of the submarine/submersible movie, the film admirably conveys what for these men is a normal working day; claustrophobia, isolation, an unforgiving environment. Cogently depicting the very strong bonds that form in such circumstances, the film presents a group of very likeable people who have as much respect for one another as they do reverence for the ocean in which they ply their trade. In one respect, it's a story of blue-collar solidarity, in another, it's a slick thriller. Providing plenty of material for the audience with which to empathise, Last Breath is as worth checking out for its quieter human elements as it is for its grandiose struggle against-the-odds storyline.