Movie Review: 180˚ South: Conquerors of the Useless (2010)

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Even though he admits that if you look up his name Jeff Johnson in any phonebook that you'll find ten of him, chances are that -- of the ten -- only this particular Jeff would be this overwhelmingly drawn to the practice of what he calls putting himself in places where people don't belong.

Working odd jobs as a dishwasher or flight attendant anywhere he can find work just to fund the next adventure from hiking to surfing, in filmmaker Chris Malloy's fascinating production from Magnolia Pictures and Netflix, we catch up with Jeff as he begins the ultimate adventure of retracing the epic 1968 Patagonian journey to climb Cerro Corcovado like his idols Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins.

Hitching a ride on a fifty foot cutter where he helps out as part of the small crew journeying south, Jeff battles relentless seasickness for months until the boat and the men aboard become shipwrecked on Easter Island where Jeff celebrates Christmas and meets another faithful adventurer in the island's first female surfer to ride the waves of Easter alongside the male dominated pack.

And whether it's wandering through Chile on his skateboard to speak to an environmentalist, riding the longest wave of his life or risking his neck climbing the icy, flat faced Corcovado, 180˚ is a fascinating documentary that champions the journey occurring inside of Jeff as he himself embarks on his own amazing odyssey.

A celebration of nature thanks largely to the gorgeous cinematography by lensman Danny Moder which is nicely set to musical montage as the days fade into nights and rocks segue into ocean to the rhythms of Modest Mouse and Jack Johnson just to name two, the work makes great use of its parallel narratives in having the elder '68 travelers pontificate about their journey, which is then intercut with Jeff's current one to ultimately arrive at their location.

Weaving a great narrative thread courtesy of Jeff's detailed journals, we're quick to lose ourselves along the way as if we were riding the waves right along with him which speaks volumes for a documentary that isn't primarily about surfing but about our responsibility to Earth and our desire to be one with it – sometimes in the most extreme of ways.

And although it's releasing in perfect time to correlate with the start of summer and man's innate desire to break free from society and wander – even if it's just to the next city – 180˚ is also a cautionary tale of consumption and greed beautifully disguised as a travel documentary as animation illustrates what “progress” will do to certain gorgeous untouched areas and what effects citizens have already experienced when people put money ahead of protecting the Earth that's been there for us from the start.

And regardless of the fact that it isn't as flashy as Magnolia's other recently released political documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, this one is well-worth seeking out to appreciate the multitude of layers from nature to individual, especially when they're wrapped up in an affable guide who claims he's an ordinary Jeff Johnson but in reality is nothing less than extraordinary.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.