The Dawn Wall (2018)

“Why are you doing this?”

As the lesser known of last year’s rock-climbing docs, The Dawn Wall takes a drastically different approach compared to 2018’s Best Documentary Feature winner Free Solo, and it’s the better film of the two for it. There’s more information, more depth, a specific intention behind attempting the unthinkable. That’s not to diminish the merits of Free Solo or Alex Honnold’s unharnessed scale up Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan wall either. He sought perfection and climbed in a way where a single mistake could cost him his life. Whereas that documentary showed us what we’re capable of on our own, The Dawn Wall provides an excellent counter thesis by championing how it’s often more fulfilling when we do things together.

We meet legendary free climber Tommy Caldwell during different points throughout his life. Conventional interview sections are jam-packed with bundles of footage covering him from a little boy, a climbing protegé, up to being the biggest name in the sport. There’s an incongruous animated portion in the documentary, recreating Caldwell’s harrowing kidnapping alongside other climbers and his first wife Beth Rodden during a nearly deadly expedition gone awry in Kyrgyzstan. And then the film focuses on Tommy as an adult, having lost an index finger (always remember, push objects through a table saw and never pull), divorced and devastated by the 180-degree turn his life has taken.

Heartache fuels obsession as Tommy turns into a cartographer of the titular wall, trying to be the first to map a course up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, itself a razor-sharp sheet of granite largely considered by most to be impossible to scale. Once the film gets to this point, finding Tommy teaming up on a whim with Kevin Jorgeson (who had never done large-scale climbing in his life), The Dawn Wall becomes as intimate as a waltz. The two men dance across the rock, memorizing movements and footsteps, clinging to holds just barely large enough to press fingertips into. Meanwhile back on the ground, crowds assemble and look up like onlookers at Cape Canaveral, witnessing what they consider to be daredevils exploring an unknown space. It’s empowering simply watching them pursue this feat. More than that though, The Dawn Wall places the kind of much-needed and heavy emphasis on the power of unity that our increasingly myopic world is so desperately losing more and more with every passing day.

Ambitiously shot and precisely edited, The Dawn Wall blurs passion and compulsion to create a documentary that’s both organic and oftentimes scripted, oftentimes to the point that the film exaggerates the amount of time occurring between events and setbacks. What can’t be faked are the emotional highs, the draining lows, the solitude found in the middle when these two men are camped out in portaledges anchored thousands of feet up in the air, enjoying their morning coffee as the warmth of a new day breaks over the horizon. Powered by an “I think I can” engine with a head full of steam and little to no doubt, The Dawn Wall inspires through persistence and an unflappable faith in what’s possible and achievable when optimism isn’t overtaken by pessimism. Turns out that teamwork really can make the dream work.

“It was just…wow.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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