Release: Friday, September 14, 2018 (limited)
Directed by: Josh Lowell; Peter Mortimer
Generally speaking, if you want climbing films done right, you turn to the Lowell brothers. In 1997 Josh and Brett Lowell co-founded Big UP Productions, and over the last two decades have documented some of the most stunning climbing achievements across the globe, even earning a Sports Emmy for outstanding camerawork. Their latest is The Dawn Wall, which follows big wall climber Tommy Caldwell on a seven-year quest to conquer a previously unclimbed section of the famous El Capitan.
2018 was a great year for climbing documentaries (and for Yosemite Valley, apparently), with The Dawn Wall being the first of two such films to get a theatrical roll-out. It predated the Oscar-winning Free Solo by a mere three months, and while it did not receive the same amount of fanfare I found The Dawn Wall to be the superior film both in terms of the story it tells and the climbing action featured.
There is no denying Free Solo deserved the mainstream spotlight. The life-and-death aspect of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 foot monolith without any protective gear made that film immediately attractive to an audience beyond the climbing community. Along with the gut-wrenchingly obvious consequence of failure came the complicated morality of the undertaking, with the filmmakers actually having to brace for the potential reality of capturing a death on camera while going to lengths to ensure they wouldn’t be a distraction to Honnold during the ascent. (For the record, Free Solo hasn’t changed my opinion on free soloing — it still seems to me to transcend the realm of reasonable risk-taking. I did however appreciate that the filmmakers included multiple perspectives on the matter and how clear it was to see the strain this endeavor put on the camera crew and others.)
The Dawn Wall, in stark contrast to the loneliness of Honnold’s quest, is this epic buddy adventure that takes place for the most part on the Wall and gets more into the nitty gritty of climbing, whether that’s the technique involved in a tricky section or the broader tactics of big wall climbing. Before it gets into the gory details of the Dawn Wall project, the film takes a step back into the past and builds a profile of its meek-and-mild-mannered subject, tracing his rise from a painfully shy kid (and the son of a gregarious bodybuilder, to boot) to one of the elite climbers in the world, as well getting into debates surrounding nature-versus-nurture and dedication versus obsession.
It almost seems like an epidemic in movies where a cold open teases a big moment in the present before that gets put on hold so we can get the backstory, but with Tommy Caldwell, you really need that backstory. This film is about so much more than the physical act of climbing; it’s about everything that went into the ambition. The Dawn Wall‘s first half hour or so proves to be every bit as dramatic and compelling as the titular event it covers. A treasure trove of archived footage mixed in with interviews in the present day introduce several personalities that have been instrumental in Caldwell’s life and the experiences that they have shared together — such as the time Tommy, his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden and two other friends were held hostage for six days by armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan during an expedition there. To a lesser extent we also get to know his Dawn Wall partner, Kevin Jorgensen, a lauded and fearless boulderer who isn’t as experienced in the travails of big wall projecting.
Because ropes and harnesses play crucial supporting roles here you likely won’t find yourself sweating like you were in Free Solo, but what The Dawn Wall lacks in peril it makes up for in humanity . . . and pure, unadulterated climbing psych. The drama that unfolds circa Pitch 15 — a desperate traverse across a 300 foot ribbon that hinges around dime edges and features the hardest climbing on the entire 3,000 foot climb — is quite an amazing display of graciousness and selflessness, with Caldwell refusing to leave a comrade behind in battle. (Editorial: the ideal situation in big wall climbing, at least at the professional level, is for all participants to climb the entire route without falling.)
Let’s get one thing clear: this climb, defined largely by swaths of slick, seemingly feature-less granite, is so intensely difficult it is all-out war. The 32-pitch route is considered by many within the community the most consistently difficult climb in the world, while outsiders like John Branch, a sports writer for The New York Times and the first to break the story (and usher in the media circus), view it as among the greatest athletic feats of a generation. Skin is scarred, torn, chafed, bloodied, bruised. The mind brutally pummeled by doubt. All the while the saga is gaining traction in the media and the world is watching. Waiting.
The Dawn Wall is the more engaging film because, well, A) the subjects just aren’t Alex Honnold — the dude is an enigma and for me it probably helps that I have actually met Tommy in person — and B) the supporting material rummages through some pretty personal stuff, with Caldwell addressing his divorce in the early 2000s and how loneliness, perhaps desperation, motivated him to seek a new way up the face of El Capitan. (As an aside, he’s responsible for several first ascents up the face, and even did two routes in a single day — that’s 6,000 feet of climbing in 24 hours). Between Caldwell’s geekiness and Jorgensen’s indefatigable positivity the film is absolutely the warmer, dare I say the more relatable experience, even if the climbing involved is alienating.*
The Dawn Wall is about teamwork, physical endurance, and unbelievable willpower. It is ultimately a celebration of an historical climbing achievement but delivered in a way that allows the layperson to get a feel for the effort and hardship involved. The emotional crescendo to which the saga builds, coupled with the obligatorily breathtaking cinematography**, makes the film a must-see experience.
* One aspect the film does leave out is that while Tommy and Kevin weren’t alone on the Wall by virtue of the camera crew being there, they also had a team of climbers shuttling supplies up and down the wall frequently — with none other than Alex Honnold making a quick lap up to their “base camp” to provide lip balm
** In my review of Free Solo I incorrectly assumed drones were used in the shooting. it is illegal to fly helicopters and drones through the park.
Recommendation: Comparing the two films is inevitable, especially when they came out basically back-to-back. For climbers, The Dawn Wall has more climbing action to get giddy over, making it perhaps the purer climbing film. But for those who were won over by Free Solo and don’t climb, this is kind of an ideal companion piece. It gets you even better acquainted with El Capitan, the practicalities of living on a rock face for days and weeks at a time, and to me it truly embodies the spirit of climbing. What Alex Honnold did and continues to do for a living is impressive and takes an enormous amount of courage and a rare kind of focus, but it doesn’t really represent what I know and love about rock climbing.
Running Time: 100 mins.
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