SXSW Film Review: The Dawn Wall

Impossible odds and sheer rock faces in this climbing doc

The Dawn Wall is a documentary about obstacles. Physically climbing this stretch of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park was considered impossible, but that didn’t stop 22-year-old Tommy Caldwell, the world’s greatest free climber, from dedicating nearly a decade to learning every crevice. In 2015, he reached the top. The climb took 19 days.

The film stings the fingertips to watch. Caldwell and partner Kevin Jorgeson are suspended with safety ropes, but only their hands and feet keep them on the wall. The razor-sharp granite of the 3,000-foot wall slices open even professional-grade callouses. They fall again and again and it earns a knee jerk every time. For climbers, it’s torture porn, but they keep technical jargon to a minimum. It’s clear to anyone who has even shimmied up a tree that this is an insane feat.

Beyond the physicality, this is more than just a sports movie (or a tourism ad for national parks). Caldwell’s personal history is horrifying. As a teen, he was kidnapped in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and forced to push his captor off a cliff. A few years later, he cut off a finger using a table saw. Then his wife divorced him (she was also his only climbing partner). Given what he overcame, there’s no way not to root for this guy, especially given the amount of gut laughs that result from his bromantic chemistry with Jorgeson.

The film’s crux (climbing reference!) is maintaining momentum. It covers an extraordinary amount of material in 100 minutes, but there’s a long stretch near the end where, like the climbers, the pace just gets stuck. It feels shallow to criticize the length when considering the impossibility of the challenge, but the summit would’ve been more satisfying if the filmmakers had found a few shortcuts.

The Dawn Wall

Documentary Spotlight, North American Premiere
Tuesday, March 13, 10pm, Alamo Lamar A
Wednesday, March 14, 12:30pm, Alamo Lamar D
Thursday, March 15, 6pm, Satellite Venue: AFS Cinema

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SXSW Film 2018, The Dawn Wall

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