‘Big Time’ is a documentary about a successful Danish architect being successful and describing his success. On a certain level, that sounds like it could be the dullest exercise in documentary tedium ever produced. Thankfully, filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder didn’t succumb to easy hero worship with this effort.
The director had remarkable candid access to his subject and is willing to show all of his extremes. What emerges, like so many profiles of brilliant creators regardless of their fields, is a film about obsession and someone whose drive for perfection and originality is worth the struggle.
The subject, Bjarke Ingels, leads his team called (wait for it) The Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) through a series of projects over the course of seven years. That timeline is important. This movie doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae or useless details. It’s about broader achievements, and the filmmaker developed such a strong connection with his subject over the course of production that things get personal. We see how the profession that allows Ingels to flex his genius can also take a toll on his personal life, as well as how past successes don’t necessarily ensure more freedom along with respect. For Ingels, it’s always a battle of some sort.
Ingels’ architectural achievements are unique and he has specific motivations behind the designs that he gamely dives into. He made a power plant with a ski slope on the roof and a museum located on a dry dock that caused controversy and lawsuits. Despite the battles, Ingels triumphed. It’s a pattern. He’s willing to fight for his passion projects, like a skyscraper in the former World Trade Centre complex that combines elements of Scandinavian and American architecture in ways only he understands. It’s fascinating to watch the man work out his ideas and fight them across the finish line. Thankfully, he’s also a fascinating guy beyond the work.
The big dramatic life moment of the documentary arrives when Ingels suffers a concussion that leads to headaches and an MRI that reveals a brain cyst. That forces the man to confront his own mortality (naturally). He realizes how few buildings he’ll actually get to pull from his head into the world and how many architects of the past have met early demises that cut their lives short. A handful of these intimate moments throughout the film show a deeper and more human side of Ingels that lesser docs might have ignored or not had access to even capture. Little moments like the grand artist struggling with a bowtie help ground him, which is nice, though a few less tedious sequences of him engaging in mundane tasks would have sufficed. As always, there can be too much of a good thing.
Ultimately, ‘Big Time’ is at its best when Ingels is working or describing his craft. He’s a fascinating artist and the movie makes a strong case for his work being an art. Ultimately, despite all the time spent with the subject and all the projects documented, the movie feels a little slight. He’s an intriguing guy, but director Schröder’s commitment to grounding him through daily observation robs away screen time that could have been better dedicated to his work. Still, it’s an interesting documentary shot with an uncommon amount of style for the format, which makes it play well as cinema.