There are certain landmark achievements in human history, whether physically or intellectually or a combination of the two, that only come along once every century or so, representing the pinnacle of human potential. The documentary Kipchoge: The Last Milestone, directed by Jake Scott, seeks to explore the story of one such pivotal moment in the evolution of humanity. The sub-2-hour-marathon has been a white whale in endurance sports for generations. Is it even physically possible for a human being to run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours? Or, is there a limit to the physiological capabilities of even the greatest athletes in the world? The journey of Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge answers a few of these questions, and may very well have you adopting his mantra: “No human is limited.”
If you recognize the name of director Jake Scott, there’s a good reason for that — he’s the son of Ridley Scott (who is also credited as an executive producer on this documentary). With a family background like that, it is not shocking that Jake would absorb incredible lessons in filmmaking and storytelling over the course of his life. Still, putting that knowledge to practice is another ordeal entirely. Jake Scott has found a way to do so in the last three decades, primarily making his mark directing commercials, music videos, and indeed, documentaries. In watching The Last Milestone, I felt like I was in good hands. Working with nonfictional narratives can be a tricky creative path to navigate, but Scott’s direction in this documentary thoughtfully weighs enlightening informative material, emotional substance, and cinematic flair. His filmmaking style is engaging, with methods that are complementary to Eliud Kipchoge’s story rather than distracting from it. Kipchoge has the energy of an action film, but the reflective mentality of a dramatic character study.
In a project combining the most renowned intellectual minds in the scientific communities with the most remarkable physical talents in the world, Kipchoge shows what can be accomplished when the best minds and the best bodies in the world work together toward a common goal. This is a story about problem-solving. There is an untold number of variables that go into a record-breaking attempt like this one. It is also a story of coming back from heartbreaking “defeat” and finding a way to shake off the burdens of initial “failure.” I put “defeat” and “failure” quotes, because I am referencing Kipchoge’s first sub-2-hour marathon attempt on May 6, 2017, in which he ran a 2:00:25 on a Formula One racetrack in Italy which, mind you, was still the fastest recorded time ever run for a 26.2-mile distance. While a phenomenal feat in itself, it was still a gut-punch to come so close to that sub-2-hour mark without actually reaching it. The first act of this documentary does a nice job introducing the emotional and motivational foundations leading into Kipchoge’s second attempt at the record.
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of technical and scientific jargon in The Last Milestone, but it is delivered with a clarity that prevents this documentary from becoming inaccessible to general audiences. It requires you to participate and process what is being analyzed, but the interviewees that drive the conversations are fascinating characters from the worlds of science and athletics. They are obviously authorities on the subjects, but they speak with a relatable sense of passion and amicability. They are not cold, uninteresting talking heads. It is apparent that they genuinely love talking about these events, and are giddy to be present for such a moment in athletics history. For all the scientific discussion on genetics, debates of nature vs. nurture, and animated sequences depicting the complicated aerodynamics of running, the beauty of Eliud Kipchoge’s humanity manages to steal the spotlight. His humility and kindness radiate as brightly as his athleticism. He is an easy guy to root for. A documentary like Kipchoge that aims to be heartfelt is only as good as its “main character” figure, if you will – and I absolutely wanted to see Eliud Kipchoge triumph because of his delightful persona.
In most films about sports or athletes, you can expect a handful of training montages. They tend to be quite effective in stirring the right emotions and tugging on the right heart strings. Who doesn’t get pumped up watching Rocky Balboa run to the top of a snowy mountain in the Russian wilderness? But, that example is from a fictional character in a fictional narrative. Sylvester Stallone looks really cool doing all that, but we ultimately understand the separation of his character from our own reality. However, in the case of Eliud Kipchoge, we are watching a real person doing real stuff in the real world. It is sensational. The cinematography from Thomas Dirnhofer lends to this enchantment, with lovely techniques that capture the grace and grandeur of the country sides and mountains that serve as Kipchoge’s training grounds. Yet, this is juxtaposed with tight close-ups on his face and eyes, displaying the staggering contrast of this one man in the midst of a truly awesome odyssey of the human body, mind, and spirit.
The documentary also describes that in Kenya, the sport of running is considered a profession, one for which they have much love. They do this for their families and homes. In the film’s finale, as Eliud Kipchoge heads into the final stretch of his successful record-breaking run, there are shots of Kipchoge’s running intercut with the faces and emotions of people watching all around the world as human history is in the making. Many of these faces belong to Kipchoge’s family and friends, but others are strangers who have been inspired by this overwhelming demonstration of perseverance and fortitude. I have to give credit to Jake Scott’s chops as a director here, balancing the excitement of the action with the heart of the narrative. I definitely shed a few tears seeing all this unfold.
Still, on the other side of this, the documentary closes with Eliud Kipchoge back home, running once again. He is running freely and joyfully, because that is his true love in life. Even with all of that hard work, testing the very limits of humanity, running, for him, is really about the pursuit for inner peace and contentment. One particular quote from Kipchoge that sums up the central thesis of this film: “In the journey of life, there is ups and downs. In marathon, there is a lot of challenges, ups and downs. There is pain in training, pain in running, and joy at the end of the marathon. So, I can say marathon is life.”
Available on digital August 24th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Kipchoge: The Last Milestone website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.