With so much reality television favoring conflict and situations that seem to bring out the worst in people it’s refreshing to discover a documentary about a “couple of mates” who find their friendship strengthened in the face of adversity. In Long Way Down, the sequel to the popular BBC miniseries Long Way Round starring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, the pair intend to ride their motorcycles fifteen thousand miles from John O’Groats, Scotland to Cape Town on the southern most tip of the African continent in just eighty-five days. For star struck McGregor fans even his winning smile and boyish charm lose a lot of their novelty after the first couple of hours. However, both McGregor and Boorman prove themselves to be far more than their star status as they encounter some of the most memorable, and notably respectable, people ever captured on camera.
The dynamic stars are also reunited with producer Russ Malkin and director David Alexanian and the first few hours of the documentary show the herculean efforts necessary to make such an unusual journey. Drawing on their experience from Long Way Round they begin by setting up a headquarters in London and hire a staff of assistants who immediately get to work planning the route and applying for travel visas and passports and the assembling a huge amount of paperwork needed to get men and equipment across a host of borders. Immediately, the difficulties of their trek begin to manifest and strain their hopes. Equipment, vehicles, attire and copious supplies, both medical and consumables, are stockpiled and everyone begins training, both in survival and endurance. Security is also covered and the group brings on a new cameraman with the required skills and training to help the rest of the members stay safe and out of trouble.
Early on Ewan tells the producer and Charley that he’s hoping to involve his wife, Eve, on a portion of the journey through Africa. Tempers flare and everyone expresses their misgivings and irritation, though not always directly to Ewan. Eventually, though, everyone agrees to the union and they discuss more pressing concerns, like what logos to put on the SUVs the crew will be driving. Then, after six months of preparation, with a scant number of weeks to go before they depart, Ewan takes a spill on his motorcycle and injures his leg. Everyone begins to panic, sort of, as the thought of postponing, or even cancelling their trip, becomes a definite concern. However, after some tense moments at the hospital and a brief interview with the doctor it’s revealed that McGregor has a small fracture that should heal in time for the ride. Concern after concern is addressed as preparations continue and purely observational camera work begins to give way to the more familiar “travelog” style that will continue for the entire series.
Long Way Down is more than the sum of it’s parts for several reasons. First, of course, is the unique nature of the trip itself. The journey that is chronicled starts out in the modern world of London, progresses to the historical sites of Europe and then travels even farther back in time as they travel through the ancient Nile regions of the African continent and southward. It’s interesting to note that the technology and well organized preparation in the beginning of the series seem to regress, as well, as the group discards luxury for necessity and even comfort becomes a distant memory. Next on the list of notable assets is the backdrop. There are, more than likely, no more breathtaking areas than the spectacularly contrasted lush vistas and barren horizons viewed throughout every episode. Of course, the cities they visit are no less majestic but the most interesting moments always tend to occur away from civilization. These are areas the average tourist will never see. Last, and probably most important of all, are the people. From humble villagers to hotel managers and from orphans to civic officials every face, every story, grips with a desperate intensity that is difficult to put into words. The simple, heartfelt generosity that McGregor and Boorman experience, even in the most remote locations in the African savanna, are so touching and, to their credit, never overlooked by the stars.
Though, in the first few episodes, Malkin and Alexanian attempt capitalize on McGregor and Boorman’s celebrity they do, eventually, get down to the real business of documenting an engaging journey. A few times they make the mistake of trying to improve the drama and tension by sensationalizing ridiculously trivial disagreements and difficulties. Later on in the series, however, the trials and dangers of the environment, both natural and man-made, provide more than enough excitement. Even the terrain and weather prove to be just as severe and inhospitable as one might expect as both begin to, quite literally, rip their equipment apart. The strain on each member of the crew becomes a central theme while McGregor and, for the most part, Boorman remain cheerful and openly express their awe and wonder at the sites and crowds of native people who greet them along the way, even though most have no idea who the pair are. In village after village the cast and crew are greeted with unashamed curiosity and the warmest of smiles. At each location they are offered food and drink that, in many cases, is more than most of the inhabitants get in a week.
As different from the Asian backdrops and American civilization from the first series as white is to black, Long Way Down succeeds, in the same way, by introducing the viewer to a raw and unbiased view of an entire journey, not just a short list of highlights and sound bites. The pace of each episode is carefully measured and the exquisitely poignant narration, in the form of diary video and audio from the stars, mixed with a brilliant soundtrack completely enhances the introduction of each new discovery or chance meeting. For many, who have taken arduous cross country trips on motorcycles, the irritation at the obvious luxuriousness of expensive hotels and top of the line vehicles the privileged cast and crew enjoy, including three state of the art BMW motorcycles and two heavily modified SUVs, one equipped with a video editing suite, will quickly fade as the sheer wonder of the real stars of the series come to the forefront, the people and places through which they travel. In fact, once viewed in it’s entirety, it may be difficult to remember much about the stars at all, except maybe a slightly mischievous but consistently respectful wonder at their surroundings. One would assume, and hope, that’s completely intentional.
For those who have already seen the series on television the three DVD set offers a variety of featurettes, including one about the making of the entire documentary from a production viewpoint. There are also a picture gallery and several interviews well worth checking out.
David Alexanian, Russ Malkin (director)
CAST: Ewan McGregor … Himself
Charley Boorman … Himself