SXSW 18: ‘The Dawn Wall’ Is So Much More Than a “Sports Documentary”

Credit: BrettLowell

In January, 2015, American rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson captivated the world with their effort to climb The Dawn Wall, a seemingly impossible 3,000 foot rock face in Yosemite National Park, California. The pair lived on the sheer vertical cliff for weeks, igniting a frenzy of global media attention.

But for Tommy Caldwell, The Dawn Wall was much more than just a climb. It was the culmination of a lifetime defined by overcoming obstacles. At the age of 22, the climbing prodigy was taken hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan. Shortly after, he lost his index finger in an accident, but resolved to come back stronger. When his marriage fell apart, he escaped the pain by fixating on the extraordinary goal of free climbing The Dawn Wall.  Blurring the line between dedication and obsession, Caldwell and his partner Jorgeson spend six years meticulously plotting and practicing their route. On the final attempt, with the world watching, Caldwell is faced with a moment of truth. Should he abandon his partner to fulfill his ultimate dream, or risk his own success for the sake of their friendship?

It’s really something special when the subject matter of a “sports documentary” offers ingredients from nearly every conceivable emotion and can capture the attention of the most ignorant viewer as far as that sport or event goes.  The Dawn Wall does just that, and does it very, very well.  Love, loss, fear, survival, tragedy, adversity, pain, humor & success –literally YEARS of it– all edited down to 100 minutes of captivating cinema.

It’s utterly painful to watch (in the best possible way) – razor sharp ledges, impossible grips & twists for a foot or two of ascension, knee jerking falls and moans of sympathy as Caldwell & Jorgeson slam repeatedly against the sheer rock wall as grips fail time and time again, only to be followed by audience cheers & roaring applause as seemingly impossible climbs or jumps are at last achieved. Yosemite National Park offers some pretty breathtaking scenery as well.

Outside of running just a tad long overall, The Dawn Wall is nothing sort of a truly exceptional film that just happens to be a documentary with a “sport” theme.  While Caldwell and Jorgeson’s journey up the wall was a well-known achievement, it was undoubtedly unknown by many potential viewers of the film.  If you fall in this category, do yourself a favor and remain ignorant until you’ve seen The Dawn Wall.  If you’re well versed in the event, then sit back and enjoy a terrific account of man conquering not only himself and nature, but nearly every conceivable obstacle in between.

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