'Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton'
After a string of heavy social issue documentaries, director Rory Kennedy takes a breather with a doc about surf legend Laird Hamilton. While the subject matter is far lighter and less vital than Abu Ghraib or Vietnam, Kennedy embraces her ode to the ultimate surfer dude with the same passion and insight.
Some may toss the movie aside purely due to the subject matter, but they’ll miss out on an intriguing study of a man whose out-of-control ambitions and ego somehow combined into something special.
‘Take Every Wave’ assumes that most people don’t actually know anything about Laird Hamilton and dives into his life in almost excruciating detail for a full two hours. Many times that feels like a bit much, but the cumulative effect speaks for itself. What emerges is a man who seemingly lacks whatever specific brain connections are required for fear. In his younger days, that amounted to almost loathsome cockiness (culminating in a hilariously stilted performance in a surfer film). Eventually, it resulted in some stunning surfing achievements and big “wow” moments on screen.
The story weaves through a troubled childhood and absentee father until a teenage Laird finds a surrogate patriarch in stepfather and board-builder Bill Hamilton. That led to a youth crushing giant waves in a Hawaii and an endless quest to top the experience while traveling the world in search of bigger challenges. Laird pioneered techniques and even incorporated jet skis so that he could make it to waves larger than anyone previously had. He eventually became a beloved surfing icon. All the while, a pesky metaphor forms about how chasing big waves can be viewed as a symbol for living life to the fullest.
Sounds pat and manipulative, right? At times, that’s true of Kennedy’s glossily mounted surf doc. Fortunately, that’s not the primary takeaway. By gathering a collection of remarkably candid interviews with Hamilton, his friends, family, and cohorts, the filmmaker crafts a rounded portrait of an athlete well aware of his flaws. Hero worship comes alongside archival footage that justifies the superlatives, and human foibles define the icon as much as his achievements. There’s also the little matter of the fact that the surfer never joined any sort of professional league, refusing to compete against anyone other than himself and striving always to grow and get better as both a person and a surfer. That’s actually a surprising amount to chew on for a movie that’s ultimately about catching tasty waves, bro.
‘Take Every Wave’ may not be a groundbreaking documentary that demands to be experienced. However, it’s an intriguing and well-rounded portrait of a man far more complicated than he initially appears. The beautifully crafted doc will make even the most jaded surfing skeptic (e.g. me) find beauty and meaning in footage of beefcake surf bodies sliding through crashing water. There’s something oddly moving and subtly poetic here, culminating in a lyrically beautiful shot of Hamilton effortlessly gliding across the water for what feels like days. It’s a gorgeous image that viewers can project everything or nothing onto, with the filmmaker providing more than enough material to support either choice. Surfing obsessives and those who like watching humans excel will find something to touch them here.