The Dawn Wall

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018 (limited)

→Netflix

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.

Tommy entering the crux sequence of Pitch 15.

Me and my friend Todd (green jacket) with Tommy and Beth circa October 2006 at Foster Falls, near Nashville, TN. The couple were premiering their section for a new Big UP Productions film, wherein Tommy did two El Cap routes in a single day

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.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.sandyrussellcreative.com

Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com