Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers


Bob Lazar has thoughts none of us can guess at.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard)  Bob Lazar, Mickey Rourke (narrator), Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell, Mario Santa Cruz, George Knapp, Layne Keek, Phyllis Tucker, Zack Slizewski, Joy White. Directed by Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell

 

For those who believe that there is life on other worlds, the truth is out there. For those who don’t, often there is no out there when it comes to truth. Some are more agnostic about it; the odds favor life developing elsewhere but until an alien spacecraft lands on the White House lawn, it is only theory. Many believe that aliens have already landed here and much of that belief is centered around two places; Roswell, New Mexico and Groom Lake, Nevada – the latter better known as Area 51. It’s not hard to figure out why Roswell is in the picture but why Area 51?

Most people are unaware of Bob Lazar but to those true believers who accept that aliens have visited our plant he is revered. In 1989, his voice disguised and his identity hidden, he “came out” to TV news journalist George Knapp of Las Vegas that he was an engineer working at building “S-4” in the Groom Lake complex tasked with reverse engineering propulsion systems of alien spacecraft. He asserted that the U.S. government is in possession of nine of them, and that there are alien bodies as well (although he only thinks he’s seen one, a claim walked back from his initial interviews in which he claimed he’d seen them). He later followed up that interview with one in which he revealed his identity.

The scientific community initially pooh-poohed his claims and Lazar became something of a pariah in the scientific community; these days he runs an electronics manufacturing firm. However in the thirty years since he made his startling claims he hasn’t changed his story overly much except as noted. Many of his friends and family have supported him, telling anyone who will listen that Bob Lazar isn’t the type of guy to lie. They point out he hasn’t profited a dime from his claims; why commit professional suicide in that case?

Corbell apparently aspires to make this film part of a series of paranormal investigations and in some ways he’s starting off with a bang. Lazar has been notoriously press-shy for more than a decade now, rarely granting interviews. There is some interest here for those who want to learn where some of these UFO theories got started and how they accelerated into the mainstream. It’s truly an interesting story.

Unfortunately, Corbell busies up the documentary with a barrage of images of atomic age archival footage and such that after awhile make the movie seem more like a collage than a film. There is also the psychobabble narration that is mumbled by Mickey Rourke; at times poetic, at times it comes off like comic relief. It’s distracting and unnecessary.

Corbell would have been better off going the “simple is better” route. He has a compelling story and an opportunity to really develop it. However he falls into the trap of not only trying to come off as an artist but also of getting too close to the subject and ends up making a manifesto more than a documentary. There’s nothing wrong with making a film with a point of view, but you have to take your audience into account; true believers may require some corroboration but we hear about FBI raids and assassination attempts with absolutely no evidence. Corbell and Lazar claim that much of Lazar’s past has been systematically erased – his work records at Los Alamos expunged (although he does appear on a phone guide there) and his education at Cal Tech and MIT also gone. The latter claim is a little dicier; none of his professors remember him although a couple of students do. It isn’t enough to make much of a case.

This is definitely a missed opportunity that has more to do with a tyro filmmaker trying to make a splash than it does with the subject matter. Had Corbell dispensed with the pretentious narration and the onslaught of unnecessary images, this would have been a more palatable film. As it is the movie seems to be directed only at true believers and at the end of the day fails to convince anyone who isn’t already of that mindset that the truth indeed may be out there.

REASONS TO GO: There is some really interesting material here.
REASONS TO STAY: There is far too much visual input to the point that the film gets annoying after a little while. Little proof is offered to substantiate anything.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Area 51: Secrets and Conspiracies
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Bleed Out

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Islam and the Future of Tolerance


Sam Harris is looking for peace.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Maajd Nawaz, Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Directed by Desh Amila and Jay Shapiro

 

It is a given that it is a bad idea to discuss politics and religion if you want things to be sociable. Harris, a neuroscientist, is an atheist who has become symbolic of the New Atheist movement. Nawaz is a former radical Islamist who after being rescued from an Egyptian jail by Amnesty International has become an outspoken advocate for religious reform within Islam. Initially when they met, a discussion over the possibility of reform within Islam led to a rift between the two men.

Eventually, they decided to talk things out and discovered that they were more like than unalike. While they both have fundamental differences in philosophy, both agree that Islam needs reform, and that the way to do it properly is not through violence but through conversation. The two men had just such a conversation (which fortunately was recorded with excerpts from it played here) which led to them co-authoring a book whose name this documentary has taken as a title and whose subject matter has inspired this film.

Both men are articulate and intelligent; listening to them talk is absolutely fascinating. They are also passionate believers in their ideas, with Harris in particular suggesting a willingness to have his mind changed. Watching this movie is like being privy to a conversation between two intellectual equals who not only have differing points of view, they are both willing to admit the points of view that they share as well. At times the movie gets a little bit talky which might scare some people off (if the subject matter doesn’t to begin with) but I found the movie never got dull. Your opinion may differ on that score.

While the directors use some interesting visual metaphors to what’s happening (like using tightrope walkers to illustrate the difficulty both men faced when they re-convened in 2014) they mostly stick to interview-style tactics to discuss the backgrounds of the two main subjects, particularly when it comes to Nawaz whose background in England going from a fairly happy high school student to a radical Muslim is compelling. He would join the radical Hizb Ut-Tahir group and become an important recruiter to their cause. After 9-11 (he was in Cairo recruiting at the time) he was arrested by the Egyptian police and tortured. It was only through the intervention of Amnesty International that he was released; the fact that it was Westerners who saw to his rescue led to his transformation from radical Islamist to advocate for reform.

The questions raised by the movie are worthy ones and to be honest these are questions we are all going to need to grapple with. The last third of the film both men take aim at liberals who have a tendency to overreact to criticism of Islam by immediately playing the bigotry card. The infamous Real Time With Bill Maher show on which actor Ben Affleck blew a gasket when host Maher and guest Harris referred to Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas.” He said that the sentiment was “gross and racist,” and at the time I agreed with him.

Watching this though I see what Harris and Maher were trying to get across a little bit more clearly. They are absolutely correct that liberals are becoming more and more entrenched and intolerant in their beliefs that true liberals march in lockstep when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation, sexual politics and other liberal sacred cows. Criticism of bad ideas is at the heart of liberalism and if we can’t do that without someone yelling “cultural insensitivity,” then we have failed. However, words do matter and I can understand why Affleck blew a fuse – going back and watching the clip over again (it’s on HBO Go) the language both Harris and Maher used was inflammatory. That becomes more of an issue when Nawaz argues that strict interpretation of what the Quran says may not necessarily reflect what the intent was of the writer to get across; the language has changed considerably in the interim, as well as the context.

This is fascinating stuff although some may find it dull and overly intellectual. For my part, I think that film should occasionally give our brains an opportunity to be exercised and tackling controversial but relevant questions about explosive subjects is in general a good thing. This is a dynamic if occasionally dry movie that is unafraid to tackle a subject most of us don’t care to think about – but we really should.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer is forced to reexamine their beliefs. This is more of an intellectual film than an emotional one. There are some interesting visual metaphors.
REASONS TO STAY: The film may be a bit too talky for some.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is not suitable for children. There is also some profanity including racial epithets.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Nawaz met at a dinner following a debate in which Nawaz felt he had his rear handed to him; Harris, admittedly tipsy, asked questions of the obviously hurt Nawaz that led to a non-violent standoff. Four years later, Harris reached out to Nawaz and had a lengthy phone conversation; both men found to their surprise that they had more common ground than they thought.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thinking Atheist
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Ben is Back

Up and Away (Hodja fra Pjort)


Big people should check for size limits when getting on the ride.

(2018) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Eoin McCormick, Lucy Carolan, Marcus Lamb, Dermot Magennis, Doireann Ni Chorragain, Gary Cooke, Paul Tylak, Susie Power. Directed by Karsten Kiilerich

 

I suppose in an age of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West that the adventurous tales of ancient Arabia don’t hold as much luster. Great heroes like Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and Scheherazade were much more in vogue when I was growing up and I still remember being captivated by exotic cities with onion domes, minarets and flying carpets. That kind of magic is the sort the world can still use.

This Danish animated feature from an Oscar-nominated animated short director would seem to have more than a little interest for folks like me even if it is based on a more contemporary story. Hodja is a young boy, the son of a tailor in a small village, who dreams of going on great adventures. A carpet seller and neighbor who sells his father’s rugs happens to have a magic carpet and wants to help Hodja go on adventures with his best friend – a goat. The friendly but sad carpet seller wants only one thing in return – for Hodja to find “the diamond,” which turns out to be his granddaughter that he left behind when he fled from an evil Sultan who lives in the big city of Pjort.

Hodja and his goat fly off to Pjort to find their adventure but instead find a city on the brink of starvation, where street kids find whatever scraps they can in exchange for shelter. The miserly owner of the shelter, known as The Rat to one and all because of his rodent-like face, soon discovers that Hodja is in the possession of a magic carpet and knows the Sultan will make him a general in his army in exchange for the carpet. So he steals it from Hodja, leaving the boy stranded in the city. He must use his wits to get his borrowed carpet back or never see his family again.

The animation isn’t half-bad with some beautiful vistas of a city right out of Arabian Nights. It also isn’t half good, as many of the characters look like cartoons. Unfortunately, this is no Aladdin although the setting is similar. The characters are all given exaggerated features and look decidedly like cartoons. That might be fine for Saturday mornings, the 1980s or the Cartoon Network but kids today are a little bit more sophisticated except for maybe the very young.

Making things worse is that the story is very predictable (you’ll be able to figure out who the granddaughter is without breaking a sweat) and the characters very cliché – the disapproving dad, the headstrong girl, the greedy Sultan and the sneaky Rat – and none of them are developed much beyond that. I get that animated features intended for kids don’t necessarily have to meet high standards of character development but come on! I guess these cliché characters might be new to the very young.

I suspect in fact that this is meant for younger tykes – one gets a distinct impression that the filmmakers are dumbing down the proceedings which is a common failing with animated features. You certainly don’t get the impression that there is enough respect here to understand that kids actually appreciate a better quality story than one that just goes through the motions. Even the least discerning kids will likely get bored with this quickly.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice animated sequences. The music is nice.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is predictable and the characters are all cliché. This is pretty dumbed down for the kids. The ending is just awful.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kiilerich was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1997 for When Life Departs.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Under the Wire

Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

All About Nina


The comedian is hard to spot.

(2018) Dramedy (The Orchard) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Mindy Sterling, Angelique Cabral, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges, Nicole Byer, Todd Louiso, Victor Rasuk, Pam Murphy, Sonoya Mizuno, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Masucci, Cate Freedman, Grace Shen. Directed by Eva Vives

 

Some movies are pretty much what you expect them to be. They chug along, doing what you imagined they’d do, making the plot points you expected from them, following a tried and true formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen plenty of really entertaining movies that were also formulaic. Then again, there are movies like All About Nina that are motoring along at a brisk pace, fulfilling every one of your expectations to the point where you think you’re going to give a mediocre review. Then one scene comes along, elevates the movie into something special and blows all your preconceptions out of the water, leaving you breathless.

Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comedian who has been banging her head against the wall of male hegemony in the stand-up business. Her act has a lot of anger in it as she reaches across taboo lines like diarrhea and menstruation and keeps on going until she can find another line to cross. She is involved in a relationship with a married cop (Crawford) who beats her up from time to time. Her life is, in a nutshell, going nowhere.

She decides to shake things up a bit and heads out to Los Angeles to try and get a special on the Comedy Prime network. Supported by her very pregnant agent (Cabral), Nina moves in with a sweet New Age sort (del Castillo) and soon begins to make some noise in the L.A. comedy clubs. Her self-destructive impulses however have followed her from New York; too much drinking, too much sex with the wrong guys…that kind of thing. Then she meets Nate (Common), a contractor who takes an interest in her as she does in him. Suddenly there are possibilities. The network is interested in her as well but it all comes crashing down, leading her to a confessional standup session where everything comes out.

That confessional standup sequence is alone worth seeing. It is one of the most mind-blowing, heart-rending sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. Winstead is not a stand-up comic but she does a credible job with her delivery here. She also brings an animal intensity to the role that gives Nina the kind of edge that we rarely see in movies since the ‘70s. She’s been on a roll of late and hopefully we will start to see her in the kind of prestige roles she is well-suited for.

Common also excels here. He’s a bit on the Zen side in terms of being calm, cool and collected in the face of Hurricane Nina but he’s such a good boyfriend type that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more romantic lead roles before now. Hopefully this will lead to a good many more of that sort of parts and I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who’d agree with me on that point.

The movie can be difficult to watch; Nina has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and can be unpleasant to be around. She is bitchy at times and a rage bomb at others. Her stand-up routine is not for the faint of heart or of stomach and those who are offended by profanity might as well give it up – there are sailors who would blanch at the filth that comes out of Nina’s mouth both on and off stage. However, if you have the stomach for it and the patience for it, this is a movie that has been slowly rolling out around the country that deserves a look if it’s playing anywhere near you.

REASONS TO GO: One scene elevates this movie into something special. Winstead and Common deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: A good deal of L.A. stereotypes infests the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Vives’ feature film debut. She is known previously for writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Church

The Dawn Wall


You can’t beat the view at dawn on the Dawn Wall.

(2017) Documentary (Red Bull/The Orchard) Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, John Long, Mike Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Kelly Cordes, Terry Caldwell, John Dickey, Jason Smith, Matt Jones, Gail Jorgeson, John Branch, Matt Jones, Tom Evans, Becca Pietsch. Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer

 

There is a fine line between endeavor and obsession. Sometimes a concept can completely take over our lives to the point of souring relationships, alienating family and forcing us to forsake all other things in service to that one thing, that accomplishment that would make our lives complete. It is hard for outsiders to understand.

Tommy Caldwell is one of the world’s most accomplished free climbers – climbers who eschew devices for anything other than safety reasons. Ascent is accomplished only by using limbs; fingers, toes, heels and sometimes other body parts. It requires insane athleticism, even more insane pain tolerance and the kind of focus that requires rigid discipline and unrivaled preparedness.

For rock climbers like Caldwell, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is Mecca. The granite monolith towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The back of El Cap, as climbers affectionately call it, has trails that lead to the top for those who are less Type A. Most reputable climbers have done several different ascents of the mountain which are some of the most challenging on earth. Of particular note is the Dawn Wall, so called because when dawn breaks in Yosemite the Dawn Wall is the first surface to be lit by the rays of the sun. Nearly completely smooth, there are few places for hands to grip, for feet to gain purchase. Even the most legendary climbers, like John Long (who provides much of the technical commentary here) were certain that the Dawn Wall couldn’t be climbed.

Caldwell is the type of man who if you tell him he can’t do something, he goes right out and does it anyway but this was different and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of challenges. While on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, he and then-girlfriend Beth Rodden as well as two other climbers were captured by rebel terrorists. After a remarkable escape, they all returned home safely although Tommy was seriously affected by the incident. Shortly after marrying Rodden, he accidentally sliced off half of his left index finger. Any climber will tell you that free climbers rely heavily on the index fingers. For most free climbers that would be a career killer.

However Tommy Caldwell is not most free climbers. He trained his other fingers to pick up the slack and also to utilize  the remainder of that index finger and emerged a better climber. By this time the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall – which no human had ever accomplished – had taken hold. He spent more and more time researching routes of the wall, climbing parts of it, looking for  route that gave him a chance to accomplish the impossible. His obsession and depression proved to be too much for his marriage. Tommy needed a climbing partner to help him ascend the Dawn Wall; he found one in Kevin Jorgeson, a cheerful California boy who was looking for a new challenge after he had become one of the top boulder climbers in the world. Tommy convinced him to dive right into the deep end – the most challenging free climb on Earth. Together, the two men planned and researched and argued and trained until at last they were ready to make history.

The expedition made headlines all over the world when it happened although to be honest I don’t remember much about it. We see network coverage of the time however, reporters calling on Tommy’s cell phone which apparently got service while hanging on the side of a rock. Documenting the attempt were an army of cameramen and riggers, some hanging from the top of El Cap and giving viewers a unique you-are-there experience. We see the bloody hands of the climbers after a day of hanging by their fingers on razor-sharp cracks in the rock.

The views are breathtaking and Caldwell’s story is amazing. Jorgeson gets less coverage by the team but his moment is in facing the most difficult section of the climb – Pitch 15 (the climb was divided into 32 different sections, called pitches) – which Tommy conquered early on but Kevin made attempt after attempt, always losing his grip and falling (safety lines are worn to prevent them from falling to their deaths). As both men grow more frustrated, Tommy decides to continue on further with Kevin acting as support. Kevin is disappointed but when Tommy conquers the last difficult pitch and stands atop Wino Tower, he knows he doesn’t want to hit the summit alone. He makes an extraordinary decision that puzzles veteran climbers but not those who know him best.

As a character study, we get to know bits and pieces of Tommy Caldwell but he is a fairly shy individual so some things are difficult for him to articulate. That’s okay though: this isn’t really about the story of Tommy Caldwell precisely but at the end of the day it’s about the resilience of the human spirit, the need to conquer the unconquerable, to expand our horizons and to make the impossible possible. In this divisive age where the American spirit seems stunted by political tribalism, self-absorption and malaise, we need men like Tommy Caldwell more than ever. The triumph of mountains conquered – whatever shape those mountains take – is within the grasp of all of us who are willing to make the sacrifice to achieve.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely mind-blowing, particularly the footage on the wall. Caldwell’s story is the kind that is too bizarre to be anything but real.
REASONS TO STAY: Caldwell’s obsessive behavior might be too much for some viewers to understand.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dawn Wall originally made its American premiere at Sundance this year and has also been shown in selected theaters as part of Fathom Events special programming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meru
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Love, Gilda