Film Review: The Dawn Wall

Two climbers overcome the odds to complete a daunting route up Yosemite's El Capitan.
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In The Dawn Wall, two world-class climbers—Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson—tackle an especially difficult rock face in Yosemite. Their task takes years of training and planning, documented exhaustively by co-directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer.

Long before he came up with the idea of scaling the "Dawn Wall" on Yosemite's El Capitan, Tommy Caldwell had built a reputation as a fearless and inventive rock climber. Competing for the first time at the age of 16 at the Snowbird Sport Climbing Championship, he not only defeated every other climber but was the only one to finish the entire course.

During an expedition to Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Caldwell and his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden were taken hostage by insurgents, an incident that had a lasting impact on their lives.

Stunning cinematography brings viewers in close with Caldwell as he free-climbs around the world. Later he concentrates on El Capitan in Yosemite, one of the premier climbing destinations. Caldwell makes several "first free ascents" on routes up El Capitan. It's a dangerous method in which the climber cannot use equipment except for safety reasons.

When Caldwell loses part of his index finger in a construction accident, it takes him years to recover his form. After a painful divorce from Rodden, Caldwell fixates on free-climbing the Dawn Wall, a 3,000-foot route with 32 pitches, many of them rated highly difficult.

Jorgeson, who grew up in Santa Rosa, California, became interested in climbing through bouldering, a physically intense method of clambering up smooth rocks. He met Caldwell after writing a fan e-mail. The two began spending months at a time in Yosemite practicing the Dawn Wall route.

The directors interview climbing experts, journalists and family members who explain in greater detail how difficult the expedition is. But it's the camerawork by director of photography Brett Lowell and cinematographer Corey Rich (along with many other contributors) that impresses the most here. Close-ups show just how precise and physically challenging the climbers' moves are. Some pitches require the climber to hold themselves by a single finger, or with two thumbs pushing against tiny protuberances.

Once the actual expedition begins, it takes Caldwell and Jorgeson days, and then weeks, to master each pitch. Their effort draws the attention of media around the world. Lowell and Mortimer document each new twist in the climb, building steady tension as the summit nears.

Even seasoned climbers would pause at some of the moves Caldwell and Jorgeson attempt. Free-climbing the Dawn Wall is an incredible physical accomplishment, but to be honest, it's not particularly dangerous.

Coincidentally, Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold's attempt to climb a different El Capitan route, will be opening soon after The Dawn Wall. (Caldwell appears in Free Solo, and subsequently teamed with Honnold on record-breaking climbs.) If you have time for only one rock-climbing movie this fall, Free Solo is by far the more frightening and astonishing choice.