The tagline for this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival is “Go Deeper” and that is certainly fitting for the Opening Night premiere film. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laid Hamilton is both an extreme sports film, featuring some breathtaking footage, and a solid biographical study of big-wave surfer and ocean pioneer Laird Hamilton. This documentary from director Rory Kennedy certainly does take us deeper, as we spend nearly two hours watching the story of a fearless and quite affable athlete who has pushed himself hard to find various successes throughout his life, while also experiencing some literal and emotional tough breaks.
Bookended by footage from a recent winter surf season on Kauai island, where El Nino storm systems would go on to pump some of the largest swells ever for that area, the film moves through the key events of Hamilton’s life, bouncing back and forth between the past and the lead up to those winter storms. As with a number of surfer docs, including 2004’s Riding Giants, which also features Hamilton, the viewer is treated to a good amount of history in regards to surf culture. The difference here is obviously the tight focus on Hamilton, his early life, his key accomplishments, what all of his activities have brought him and more. Coupled with some great surf-action footage, Take Every Wave provides a complete package that benefits from its fairly candid nature.
Make no mistake, this is a documentary whose subject is not at all going to come off in a bad light. The film may tiptoe around the idea that Hamilton could actually be borderline crazy, which he even jokes about in an early interview concerning his own birth, but the film and Hamilton’s family members are far more willing to look at the man’s actions as sheer determination that overrides any excuse to not keeping paddling or being towed out into the open water and taking on nature’s biggest swells.
A good amount of focus actually goes into Hamilton’s innovation when it came to these huge waves. Given how impossible it could be to take on some giants by himself, one of Hamilton’s most notable achievements was being one of the masterminds behind tow-in surfing. This is a technique that has the surfer using artificial assistance (generally a Jet Ski) to help tow them into a large breaking wave. Tow-in surfing would lead to Hamilton riding the heaviest wave ever in Tahiti in 2000 and that’s just one of his many accomplishments in terms of being a surf prodigy, along with something of a pop culture icon for the sport.
Take Every Wave benefits from a hefty amount of archival footage and home movies to go along with the many interviews featuring family and friends. This footage helps us build up to these signature moments in Hamilton’s life, but also takes us deeper in regards to Hamilton’s state of mind or at least a sketch of context that further informs these moments in surfing history. The tow-in surfing concept, for example, was initially seen as something to celebrate, but allowing press to turn the technique into a mainstream approach would go on to take away a sense of tranquility in big surf areas, due to so many outsiders wanting to suddenly go extreme.
Even more involving is Hamilton’s personal life in more recent times. Sure, we get to learn all about a somewhat troubled childhood and more, but seeing a 52-year old man get an exam to show us how much punishment his body has taken is a great display of plenty of history. Match that with the dedicated workout sessions we see and that’s enough to show us the method behind Hamilton’s madness that makes him both impressive and a curious wonder to behold.
There are some minor qualms. While already long, all the great soundtrack choices don’t quite make up for a lack of further exploration regarding Hamilton’s choice not to compete. It is neat to learn about what made him a controversial figure, but I do wish a bit more insight could have been given in that regard. It would have complimented other key scenes that playout, including the big wipeouts that would take place, directly and indirectly involving Hamilton.
As Hamilton’s wife of 20 years, professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, can affirm, Hamilton is a man who needs friction in his life in order to keep pushing himself. Take Every Wave shows us this, as the man has seen plenty of wild activity over his years a as a surfer, but his drive to keep going is never unimpressive. It is a great sight to behold and why the final sequence in this film is truly amazing. In addition to the spectacular photography being shown before us, we know what it is for this man to ride with giants victoriously. It’s the result of going deeper and seeing what it truly means for the famed surfer.