With the Winter Olympics less than three months away and the Winter X Games even closer, now is as good a time as any for a promotional film about snowboarding. ''First Descent" happily cheerleads for the sport, which became an Olympic event in 1998. Less a documentary than a PR package with a chip on its shoulder, Kemp Curley and Kevin Harrison's film explains to us the brief, eventful history of snowboarding.
The filmmakers give us that back story in waves of overblown narration. ''It had to overcome prejudice and fight for its soul," we're told about the discrimination snowboarding faced, mostly from the haughty ski world. The movie doesn't bother coming up with a Rosa Parks or even a Martin Luther King Jr. of the sport. But in the fight for snowboarding's rights among the leisure classes, the young punks of snowboarding did manage to annoy a lot of skiers.
''First Descent" charts snowboarding's rebellion-fueled rise from the shadows of skateboarding and skiing to winter-sports dominance, with commentary from folks such as skateboarding icon Tony Hawk and ESPN's X Games analyst Sal Masekela. That is juxtaposed with actual snowboarding performed by five of the sport's best: pioneers Shawn Farmer, Nick Perata, and Terje Haakonsen and teenage superstars Shaun White and Hannah Teter. Their assignments involve free-riding down the dangerously steep mountain slopes of Valdez, Alaska.
For the youngsters, the slopes are a serious challenge to the mind-blowing freestyling they do on the relatively safe and stable surfaces of manmade halfpipes. White, an unflappable redhead, and Teter, a feisty blonde, tell us how much this Big Mountain opportunity means to them, even though they're extremely nervous. We hear what seem like dozens of variations on ''It's so new to me" and ''Will we be able to do it?"
Indeed, ''First Descent" is nothing if not repetitive. Everything is gnarly and everyone is stoked. Snowboarding enthusiasts are bound to find that contagious. They might even exclaim ''Wow," at the film's shuffles between action-filled ''powder porn" and the smitten profiles of Perata, Haakonsen, White, Teter, and the unorthodox 40-year-old Farmer, who on the slopes appears to be the artist of the quintet.
For the uninitiated, however, the movie is a slog, full of ''Sports Center"-worthy highlights (that come mostly from the Alaska action) and missed opportunities in sports journalism. Curley and Harrison certainly know the real challenges snowboarding has faced. The movie mentions snowboarding's eventual and ironic capitalism-based embrace by the sports world and the mountain resort industry and the resulting existential crises of some of the athletes. It also mentions drug use, the adoration of the Japanese, and the very entertaining, do-it-yourself action-sports film industry. But that's all just surface-scratching.
''First Descent" is missing a focus. Ultimately, it's a collection of interludes. But if you're looking for a movie that will leave you stoked for Turin 2006, this is probably it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.