Angus Taylor reviews The Dawn Wall, which is currently showing around Australia.
At first light, the Dawn wall is illuminated on the towering ship stern of sheer granite that is El Cap, and it holds all who see it in awe. The Dawn Wall film, in a similar way, shines with the brilliant light of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s burning desire to climb it. The result is much the same – awe.
In what some called ‘the moon landing of climbing’, the world watched on as Tommy and Kevin fought their way into the history books. From a punter’s perspective, it would have been easy to see that what they were attempting was very difficult. But what the world could not fully grasp, and what the film manages to articulate well, were the sobering realities of such an immense undertaking, and the emotional weight of Caldwell and Jorgeson’s journeys through adversity.
The movie begins by exploring the events and early trials in Tommy’s life, how these led up to the route’s conception, and the vision and hard work it took to make the route a reality. The lens then zooms in on Kevin’s steep learning curve from being primarily a boulderer to learning the ropes of working the hardest big wall in the world, eventually opening the emotional door wide on his struggles, both physical and emotional, with the crux pitches. It was hard not to be moved by the raw power of resilience and support that the two climbers gave each other as friends and climbing partners, and also their commitment to the project.
For Tommy, the Dawn Wall represented a way to face adversity with (in true Tommy Caldwell style), more adversity. We see how plunging himself into seemingly insurmountable demands on the wall, not only became a distraction from the pain in his life, but also a restorative devotion. That the only way to face the wall’s impossible challenges was confronting it with an impossible determination, and every ounce of his resolve.
The realism of all this is effortlessly brought to you by stunning camera work. It places you in the portaledge amongst the complex human drama, the plummeting ice, physical grind and daily rituals that come with spending weeks on end pushing your limits on the side of a 1000m-high monolith. The film’s co-editors, Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, immerse you inches away from rubber smears, unforgiving razor edges, and put you in the thick of the bewildering audacity and spiritual upheaval that captivated the world.
In a beautiful symbolism of life, the film juxtaposes the macro and micro; the magnitude and significance of the behemoth wall itself, with the watchmaker-like study of the crystalline detail, subtle nuance, and the sequences needed to be executed perfectly to stitch it all together. The cinematography does well to make the viewer contemplate, and almost feel, the dizzying exposure, the low-percentage moves, and the cutting edge of technical climbing. It makes your fingertips sweat and the creases of the brow furrow in disbelief.
One thing I felt was a minor setback, however, (and is akin to Tommy’s years of swinging around attempting to find the links between the natural features of the wall), is that the film seems to jump around in blocks of narrative that at times don’t flow together seamlessly. I also expected to see more of the wall and the other pitches featured in more depth. The film spends little time on the rest of the route, instead focussing largely on the two crux pitches. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I guess as a climber I wanted to see more of the movement, the length, the run outs, and dare I say it, ‘climbing’ footage. Although I was left wanting more in one regard, the interviews with family members, stories from the past, and the media circus that swirled around them were all embellishments that served to propel the struggle, the emotion, the pressures, and the triumph behind the ascent itself.
What is important, and is by far the overarching theme of the film, is sharing the emotional gravity in a personal way. Just as Tommy wanted to share the euphoria of the ascent with Kevin, the film lays bare to the audience the intimate moments of joy, frustration, commitment, friendship and family.
As the late Christopher McCandless is quoted, ‘happiness is only true when shared’, I believe the hook, line and sinker of this film is its ability to make you empathise with Tommy, Kevin, and the world that was cheering them on. It’s an ascent that will never be forgotten.
Apart from being a must-see film for any climber, the strong storytelling element should sit well with a more contemporary audience. Or… anyone who wants to gawk at how the we-can-do-anything-even-walk-on-the-moon spirit of the ’60s, has evolved into the modern and obscure pursuit of climbing a one kilometre high ‘sheet of glass’.
You can find where The Dawn Wall is screening around Australia here.