It would have been a massive cliche if it hadn’t been so real. And because it was so real and it showed the strength and generosity the human spirit can have, it has left a profound impression on me. I am talking about the apotheosis of the 2017 climbing documentary “The Dawn Wall” which I watched on Netflix yesterday with my son (a young climber himself). I was so happy he saw this as well.
I know it has been released for a while, this review is by no means a scoop, but here’s my take on this film nonetheless, because quality is timeless.
I will do two things, try to describe the film as vaguely as possible to entice you to go and watch it, and at the end of this post I will talk about this apotheosis of the film, and it is a giant spoiler to anybody who hasn’t watched the film, so beware.
With the Oscar for Free Solo fresh in our minds, we sat down for the Dawn Wall, a documentary about the climbing of this magnificent rock face of El Capitan. A granite slab that is the first to catch the rising sun’s rays, with ridiculously smooth segments that, before Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson’s attempt, had been unclimbed. Tommy Caldwell’s vision, even obsession with climbing this wall, itself as a result of his dealing with a double trauma of a dramatic expedition in Kyrgyzstan (dramatic in a totally bizarre way) on the one hand, and dealing with a broken relationship on the other. And that while, in a way, relearning to climb due to an accident while working on his house. A lot to take in, right off the bat.
Partnering with bouldering powerhouse Kevin Jorgenson to do this climb was not an obvious choice, more a coincidence than anything else, and the fact that Jorgenson had not done any big wall climbing before the Dawn Wall made me shudder just a bit.
As a cameraman myself, I am amazed also at the camera work and the tenacity of these men hanging from the walls to follow Tommy and Kevin. Here’s a short youtube video on the work these men did and the solutions they came up with to capture the climb. Big ups to Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer, and crew on this achievement.
Behind the Scenes of the Dawn Wall
What follows is a marathon of a climb, with 36 pitches having do be mastered, pitch 15 proving to be the focal point in technical, mental and even spiritual nexus of the climb. The climb is beautifully shot, switching between wide shots impressing us with how minisuclue these two figures and their portaledges are set off against the sheer size of the wall on the one hand, and close shots of their bruised, chafed and chalked fingers on the most minimal of ledges.
The changes between scenes on the wall and down in the valley. We see how Tommy and Kevin sleep, cook, talk recuperate and follow the world through their phones while lounging in their Black Diamond portaledges 600 meters above the ground. In contrast, we see and interviews with family, friends, journalists, and fans down below which help to emphasize the magnitude of the attempt. But it also shows the bubble in which these climbers spend their days. In a world that has shrunk to 6 square meters of portaledges and millimeters of granite holds.
But it is the relationship between Tommy and Kevin, who haven’t been partners that long, but which grows to a mutual commitment which is just unbelievable and brought me to tears. It is what elevates this film and these climbers to much more than the story of two amazing athletes climbing a wall. It makes it about the conquest, not only of physical heights, but a journey to the summits of human tenacity, generosity, empathy, selflessness… all the best traits that can make a human spirit shine.
The Dawn Wall is about climbing, but most of all about this, about being human. And for that everybody should watch this film.
So, having said that here comes the spoiler!
The absolute highlight of the film was not the conclusion of this amazing feat, it wasn’t the last meters of the climb. It was the way the two guys helped each other on pitch 15. First Tommy Caldwell, in a moment of magic where he seems to be climbing on light alone, manages to conquer this incredibly difficult traverse. What follows is a three day period where Kevin tries to follow Tommy, but time and time again cannot find the grip on the most minuscule of edges that he needs. In what seems to be the end of the climb for Kevin, he decides to throw in the towel and to help Tommy in any way he can. During the many pitches that follow, Kevin belays Tommy and doesn’t climb any more pitches himself. The selflessness of Kevin’s decision abandoning his own ambition to enable that of his friend is just amazing.
And as Tommy navigates the pitch to the Wino Tower, the last really technically difficult part of the climb, (with a lot of pitches to go nonetheless) and catches his breath, he realizes that he might have conquered the wall, but that this victory is hollow. Simply because Kevin has not been able to do the same.
The tears come as he realizes he feels lonely, and that Kevin must feel the same way. And that Kevin just hás to do Pitch 15, for their climb together to mean anything. So he mirrors Kevin’s selfless decision earlier and decides to help and support and motivate Kevin. No matter what, or how long it takes. They go all the way back, and Kevin once again attemps the traverse on Pitch 15. Once again he tries and fall, tries and falls, falls again and again,…and as a viewer I was just dieing, and felt so much admiration for Kevin and appreciation for Tommy who just chills out completely, and ensures Kevin that no matter how long it takes, they will stay there until Kevin manages. And in the end… he does. A dramatic and emotional moment if there ever was one.
So if you are into climbing, or just into amazing bigger than life true stories about what it means to be human, to do things together, to be a true friend. You should watch the Dawn Wall.