I just come to the realization that I live in a bubble. Amazing events are happening all over the world, and I’m just clueless. So, I suppose this is why documentaries exist. In a way, documentaries stretch an individual’s fifteen minutes to another ninety.
Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s The Dawn Wall documents famed rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson ascent up unconquered “Dawn Wall” in January 2015. The Dawn Wall is a 3,000-foot vertical cliff on the famed El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.
While The Dawn Wall brings you up close to the miraculous feat of Caldwell and Jorgeson, the backstory (particularly of Caldwell) is just as amazing. Tommy Caldwell was born a scrawny kid from an athletic lineage. Unable to match the physical physique of his father, his parents still encouraged their son to find some physical activity that suited his body type.
“…a 3,000-foot vertical cliff on the famed El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park.”
It would be through numerous family camping trips that Tommy Caldwell discovers rock climbing. For this child, it became a passion to the point of obsession. As a teen, his life literally changes overnight while attending a rock climbing competition. As a spectator, he wins a public open event. Invited to compete in the championship even the next day, Tommy not only wins but outperforms his competition.
Like any good televised sporting event, profound moments in Caldwell’s life are interspersed throughout the tale of the 19-day climb. Significant moments that lead him to this feat include being held hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan, ending in Caldwell pushing his captor off a cliff; Caldwell cutting half of his index finger off—almost ending his rock climbing career; and his divorce forcing Caldwell to find a new climbing partner in Kevin Jorgeson, an expert boulder climber but novice to the big wall.
We watch athletic documentaries because quite frankly, who doesn’t love an inspirational story. The Dawn Wall’s inspirational story is about two men, overcoming impossible odds in hopes of doing the impossible. The Dawn Wall exhibits the required tension, inspiration, and hope needed to carry audiences through its journey.
If you’ve been to Yosemite, you know it’s a beautiful forest valley with magnificent mountain-sides to challenge the expert rock climber. The Dawn Wall captures the park’s beauty and demands to be seen on the big screen. Lowell and Mortimer get up-close and personal to the duo with their footage. Makes you glad, they had to foresight to send a crew in to film everything. For the rock-climbing novice, the film’s play-by-play and explanations of the challenges Caldwell and Jorgeson face are simple-to-follow and easy-to-understand.
“Filmmakers also challenge Caldwell’s six-year obsession with ascending The Dawn Wall…”
Story is so important to a good documentary that I’m sure the filmmakers were worried if they would a get a good story from an event that has yet to happen. Well, there is a good story to the climb. Particularly the moment that Jorgeson is unable to cross Pitch 15, which is a sideways climb across the flattest part of The Dawn Wall. Frustrated with the wait, Caldwell decides to continue on without Jorgeson.
Filmmakers also challenge Caldwell’s six-year obsession with ascending The Dawn Wall. Obsessed to the point of ruining a marriage, straining friendships, potentially living a life in isolation. I’m sure you can figure out how this one ends. If you don’t know the story, do yourself a favor and don’t Google the true story before seeing this film.
The Dawn Wall (2018) Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer. Featuring Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. The Dawn Wall screened as part of the 2018 SXSW Documentary Spotlight competition.
4 out of 5 stars