Review by Sean Boelman
Co-written and directed by Michael Bully Herbig, Balloon is a tense new Cold War thriller set in the skies. However, unlike the higher-profile recent aeronautical thriller The Aeronauts, Herbig’s film works much better as a whole because it legitimately cares about its characters, and as a result, the stakes feel much higher.
The film tells the story of two families during the Cold War who hope to cross the German border from the GDR into West Germany in the hopes of freedom. This type of small-scale war but cinematic story tends to be compelling despite its flaws, and Herbig’s film is no exception, as it really leans into the inspiring nature of the feat.
Anyone who is interested in Cold War-era politics will undeniably be intrigued by this film based on little-known but true events. So much of the history that one hears and sees from that time is about the darkness of what was happening, so it is nice to see a film that, while acknowledging that part of history, focuses on a group of people banding together for good.
If the film does have a significant weakness, it is that it is a bit awkwardly-paced. There is a lot going on in the first thirty minutes of the film, so much so that it is a bit disorienting, before Herbig settles into a much more deliberate rhythm for the rest of the runtime. There is a solid amount of suspense and tension, and as a result, the film is consistently pretty absorbing.
The character development in the film is also relatively strong for the most part. Even though the film does have to fall back on archetypes every once in a while due to the amount of characters, the film is easily able to create a legitimate connection between the audience and the characters.
That said, the film makes the unusual choice of also featuring a subplot focusing on the film’s antagonist, a policeman trying to foil the families’ plans, seeing them as traitors to their country. Although it is understandable why Herbig and his co-writers utilized this trope to establish the chase, it takes up a bit too much unnecessary runtime.
On a technical level, Herbig’s film is admittedly pretty safe and conventional, but it is mostly effective nonetheless. The production design does a good job of periodizing the film, and the cinematography and editing work quite well to build up suspense. Even though it may not exceed expectations in this regard, the bare minimum is met.
Michael Bully Herbig’s historical thriller Balloon may be conventional, but it is an entertaining watch nevertheless. It’s an amazing true story told in a very cinematic fashion, and that makes it worth a stream as a result.
Balloon is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.