The first scene of the documentary “The Dawn Wall” looks wrong. It appears like two men are camping in a vast gray field, but the camera is turned sideways.
In fact, the camera is right where it should be. (It’s debatable whether the two men are.) They are mountain climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, hanging in a tent suspended on the side of a sheer 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
The skewed visual perspective is a nifty metaphor for the altered perspective of the climbers. Where we see an incredibly dangerous situation, they see the opportunity of a lifetime.
“The Dawn Wall,” which has a one-night-only showing Wednesday at Marcus Palace, is a highly entertaining climbing documentary from filmmakers Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, both veterans of the “Reel Rock” short film series that plays at the Union South Marquee every year. While the climbing scenes are white-knuckle exciting, the filmmakers understand that thrills alone don’t make for a good climbing documentary. We have to care about the climbers before they set one foot on the rock.
In the case of “Dawn Wall,” they have a lot to work with in the story of Caldwell and the adversity he’s overcome. Once a happy-go-lucky free climbing prodigy as a kid, Caldwell suffered a traumatic experience in 2000 on a climbing expedition in Kyrgzstan. He and his team were kidnapped by rebel soldiers for six days, and Caldwell escaped by pushing one of his captors off a cliff.
The experience still haunts him, and Caldwell came back to the United States a more serious and driven person. He became obsessed with climbing El Capitan, and after climbing all the established routes up, began inventing his own, more challenging ways up the monolith. He eventually started planning to be the first to scale the sheer 3,000-foot Dawn Wall. It’s a daunting enough challenge, made seemingly impossible after Caldwell accidentally cut his right index finger off in a carpentry accident, forcing him to complete re-learn his climbing technique.
Realizing he can’t make the climb alone, Caldwell partners with Jorgeson, a boulder climber with little mountain experience, and a cheerful guy who in many ways resembles how Tommy was before the hostage situation.
After years of preparation, the duo take on the Dawn Wall, and the film’s chronicle of their 19-day ascent in January 2015 is stunning, with breathtaking visual cinematography by cameramen who were suspended by ropes alongside the climbers. Without getting too heavy-handed about it, the climb becomes a metaphor for the two men attempting to transcend their doubts and limitations. The most suspenseful sequence in the film involves Jorgeson spending days and days trying to get past a particularly difficult section of the ascent, known as “Pitch 15.”
As they climb, and Caldwell helps the less experienced Jorgeson overcome the more difficult sections, “Dawn Wall” becomes a rather touching expression of friendship. The ascent is exhilarating, but what makes it worthwhile is having somebody climbing alongside to share it with.