The Dawn Wall (2018)


Watching The Dawn Wall, a jaw-dropping, sweaty-palmed documentary about a pair of death-wish mountaineers attempting to free climb the unscaled face of Yosemite’s monstrous El Capitan, I kept thinking about Ginger Rogers. In the inimitable words of Bob Thaves, “Don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he [Fred Astaire] did backwards… and in high heels.”
     Every crazy, nutzoid, life-threatening, and unthinkable stunt American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson perform in The Dawn Wall, Director of Photography Brett Lowell and Principal Cinematographers Corey Rich and Kyle Berkompas had to capture on film. And they had to capture it suspended from a 10mm rope 1,000 feet above the ground, often in the battery-draining cold under a black sky with harnesses digging into their legs. And all while holding a camera, keeping their subjects in focus and in frame and, most importantly, not falling off the side of a 3,000-foot mountain. In that regard, this towering achievement is as much about the filmmakers as it is about Caldwell and Jorgeson… and everyone else who contributed to getting that final, white-knuckled footage in the can.
     With these wildly impressive technical challenges to overcome, The Dawn Wall would be a fascinating film if it was just about this one 19-day climb. But it’s much more than that.
     We learn about Tommy’s obsessions from an early age (his Dad was a climber and pushed his son to succeed; perhaps too far?), his harrowing capture by—and subsequent escape from—Kyrgyzstan rebels at the age of 22, the breakdown of his first marriage (to a fellow climber and hostage), and his subsequent need to find a replacement climbing partner when everyone thought he was mad to even attempt El Cap’s Dawn Wall. We’re told how Tommy and rookie recruit Kevin spent six years planning their ascent, climbing down the mountain to scout and document the best possible route up it. And how, just before their shot at the “impossible,” Tommy lost an index finger in a freak accident (free climbers being rather dependent on their digits, unfortunately).
     Sure, The Dawn Wall is all about the power of the human spirit, strength in the (rock) face of adversity, unfettered perseverance, belief in oneself, and—logistically—the potentially dream-shattering Pitch 13 (of 32), that section of the ascent with the highest degree of difficulty (not that any of them were easy). Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s film throws all those clichés at the ’Wall yet manages to make them all stick.
     This is compelling cinematic drama, breathtakingly filmed, often spilling over with real human emotion—heartbreak, euphoria, pain and suffering. The two men spent weeks on that mountain, as an entourage of family members, salivating media types, and general well-wishers gathered below. And you’ll be rooting for them too.
     I watched this film on a 9-inch screen on an airplane with questionable sound quality and I couldn’t look away. I can only imagine how The Dawn Wall would play—how it would feel—in a proper movie theater. It’s the best mountaineering film since Joe Simpson and Simon Yates first touched the void in 2004, and a pretty awesome film experience, period.

(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth