Monday, December 10, 2018

Film Review: The Dawn Wall

The year 2018 was a banner year for climbing films. It was the year that climbing documentaries became a thing that had a life in mainstream theaters across the country. Yes, Meru made a splash in 2015, and it certainly paved the way for 2018. But 2018 was the year that there were literally two climbing documentaries at the theater at the same time! Those documentaries were The Dawn Wall and Free Solo...

There haven't really been that many mainstream media circuses around positive things in climbing. Most commonly the media is fixated on tragedies. But that changed in January of 2015. That was when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson spent nineteen days on El Cap, attempting to free climb the Dawn Wall. At some point during their adventure, the media outside the outdoor media, found out what they were doing...and that's when all hell broke loose. They were on the news every single night...

But The Dawn Wall isn't just about the first free ascent of a Yosemite big wall. Instead, it is about Tommy Caldwell, the film's unlikely protagonist, his life and his friendship with Kevin Jorgeson.

The film delves deeply into Tommy's life. It looks at how he became a climber. It looks at his courtship with Beth Rodden. And perhaps, most importantly, it discusses the events surrounding Tommy, his friends and their kidnapping by Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan in 2000.

In August of 2000, Tommy, Beth, John Dickey and Jason Smith were climbing a big wall in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. A group of militants on the ground began to shoot at them, forcing them down. Following that, the team was held for several days while Kyryzstani soldiers searched for them. The only reason they escaped is because Tommy was forced to push one of the militants off a cliff so that they could escape...

This is a central part of the climber's life, and indeed a central part of The Dawn Wall documentary. Tommy's experience lead him to marry Beth. That same experience was partly to blame for their divorce. The divorce drove Tommy to find an impossible project...and that project was the Dawn Wall on El Cap.

The film chronicles all of these different features. But there is one thing that stands out above the rest. It is the fact that Tommy places his partnership with Kevin above all things. He sees his climbing partnership as something that is almost holy. And as Kevin's falters on the wall, Tommy can't imagine finishing the project without him. They worked too hard together to allow one of them to fail.

People often ask the question, "why do you climb?"

The answer isn't, "because it's there." The answer is exactly what The Dawn Wall is about. It's a film that celebrates athleticism, natural beauty, the human spirit, and perhaps most importantly, friendship. These are the reasons most people climb. And these are the central subjects of the Dawn Wall film...

--Jason D. Martin

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