A crowd of inner-circle cinephiles, some scruffier than others, mingled outside the Laemmle Theater in Santa Monica on Saturday night, for an invite-only screening of The Dawn Wall. Tickets for all three showings that day had sold out.
It was a scene that, twenty years ago, when I started climbing, was unimaginable. Back then, people thought climbing was way too obscure for the general public. They’d never get it.
Nowadays, “There’s nothing remotely archaic or rebellious or fringe about rock climbing anymore,” said John Long, known for his adventure writing and first ascents in Yosemite in the 1970s and 1980s.
But this mainstream pivot made me uneasy. Could The Dawn Wall live up to the hype? Would the general public “get it”? Because that was definitely the goal—to achieve mass appeal—of the Directors Pete Mortimer and Josh Lowell..
“We really wanted people to get it,” Mortimer said in an interview the day of the Santa Monica premiere. “If it’s touching people beyond climbing, that’s what we were going for,” Lowell added.
The film follows Tommy Caldwell, a visionary, all-American rock climbing star who had it all. But after his marriage to longtime climbing partner Beth Rodden fell apart, Caldwell needed a project—a big one. He chose the blankest section of El Capitan, The Wall of Early Morning Light, looming 3,000 feet over Yosemite Valley.
Caldwell needed a partner, and Kevin Jorgeson, a boulderer from Santa Rosa with zero big wall climbing experience, stepped up.
Caldwell and Jorgeson spent the next eight years, trying the route on and off. Jorgeson spent more than 365 days total on the wall, Tommy more. Despite setbacks, Caldwell refused to climb the route without Jorgeson, and both topped out in January 2015. A media circus ensued, President Obama gave them a thumbs up on Twitter, and Lowell and Mortimer knew they had a film on their hands.
“It’s Greek myths come to life,” says Long of the Dawn Wall saga. “Somebody who’s facing apparent and certain defeat, but just won’t accept it, and powers through, while his teammate refuses to go on until he does that. Myths are built around those things. It’s a mythical performance and it’s a mythical story.”
The first third of the film plods a bit, full of rudimentary explanations and diagrams which I generally ignored. Instead, I focused on the solid storytelling and the resonant relationships which made the impossible possible. By the second half, the action unfolds uninterrupted. Perhaps the general public “gets it” more than Mortimer and Lowell realize.
The film succeeds on most every level though, despite this. The cinematography and the documentary style for which Mortimer and Lowell are known are masterfully on display throughout. Lowell’s sleek handling of gritty footage brings visceral immediacy, and balances Mortimer’s fascination with character, relationships and personal meaning. The combination is alchemical.
While the filmmakers’ goal of reaching a mainstream audience is novel, the heart of the movie recalls the filmmakers’ pasts firmly rooted in the early days of climbing films. Lowell’s first film, Big Up, was about a tight crew of East Coast boulderers, and came out in 1997. “It’s hard to call that a film,” Lowell says, smiling. The next year, he made Free Hueco, floating first person voice-over on top of hand-held footage. No one had done that before. The Dawn Wall captures the camaraderie of the former and the first-person authenticity of the second.
People cheered and got to their feet after the 1 hour and 40 minute film. “It was exquisite,” said a woman wearing a red, veiled flapper hat. “How did you shoot it?” On one stint, Lowell explained, his brother Brett, director of photography, lived on the wall for 19 days. Lowell said, “You have to be a climber to be able to exist in that environment. They’re right there the whole time. It’s Corey [Rich] and Brett’s ability to not only capture the action, but also document those human moments.”
Cadwell added, “Filmmaking in that environment is incredibly difficult. There are so few people who can do it, and these guys pulled it off. They are definitely bad ass.”
Lowell and Mortimer have come a long way since their early climbing film efforts. Once just climbers with cameras, BIG UP and Sender Films have raised the bar for adventure filmmaking with The Dawn Wall. They are not so much redefining a genre, but polishing one.
“Climbing is such an incredible pursuit, but people can’t witness it. It happens alone in the mountains, so films are really the only way to capture the impressiveness of what these guys are doing,” Lowell said. “Figuring out ways to make those stories translate to regular people has been a mission for a long, long time.”
With The Dawn Wall, Lowell feels he has finally done that. And so far, the public not only gets it, but loves it.
On September 19, for one night only, The Dawn Wall will be in over 600 theaters nationwide
Caroline Treadway is an award winning writer and documentary filmmaker, who makes a living as a photographer, and is based in the mountains west of Boulder, at 9,000 feet. Follow her on Instagram at @carolinelovesphotos