Few things readily spring to mind when you think of perseverance and the human spirit to tackle the most difficult tasks. Maybe its drums up images of the Wright brothers first flight in 1903, Hillary and Tenzing conquering Everest in 1953, Roger Bannister and his sub four-minute mile in 1954, the moon landing in 1969, or Aron Ralston being trapped by a boulder in 2003. To that list, I submit the tale of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the two men who dared to attempt the impossible and freeclimb the Dawn Wall, a fairly smooth and nearly vertical 3,000-foot rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The pair is the subject of a new documentary The Dawn Wall from Red Bull Media House and directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer. The film released in New York and LA on September 14th for a one week run, it also had a one-night special event around the country on September 19th that was so popular they added a second night, and now it is available through video on demand.
The Dawn Wall is not just the story of an attempt to climb the wall, it is Tommy’s story. The film is broken down into three major blocks. The first is Tommy from birth until the decision to climb the wall, the second is him training alone and then with Kevin and finally their push to the top and into climbing immortality. Even though there are three distinct elements, Lowell and Mortimer don’t tell a linear story. The three portions are interwoven creating a dynamic tale.
Rock climbing has changed Tommy’s life on at least 3 occasions. First, when he was 16, he entered an amateur contest and performed so well that organizers asked him to take on the pros the following day. Climbing led him to his first love, Beth, and allowed them to travel the world. When he was 22 while on a trip to Kyrgyzstan Tommy, Beth and two other climbers were taken hostage by rebel forces who held them for 6 days. Now, for the third time, the Dawn Wall and the world-wide phenomenon that their climb became has changed Tommy’s life once again. It has led to interviews on Good Morning America, Ellen and even recognition from President Obama.
Because it is Tommy’s tale, there is a bit of sidekick syndrome for Kevin, but that doesn’t mean he offers nothing to the story. Kevin was a well-known a boulder climber who had never attempted a big wall climb before he decided to join Tommy in what everyone else considered crazy. The most dramatic moments of the climb itself belong to Kevin as he struggles to keep up with the more experienced climber. His struggles provide the rawest moment of unity and true friendship as he and Tommy recommit to finishing together.
The best moments of this film, outside of its visuals of El Capitan’s grandeur, is the way it makes you feel like a part of the team. The camera crew is there with them catching every moment of joy, frustration, and camaraderie. You’ll want to cheer with them and you’ll catch your breath when they fall. The amount of grit, determination and passion on display is awe-inspiring. Like every amazing feat, it is not just a triumph for them, but one for all of us and serves a reminder of the level of greatness we dreamed of as a kid. The Dawn Wall is a great documentary that deserves to be seen on the largest screen you can watch it on.