To get the most important point out of the way first, it does answer the “how do you poo up there” question. It also answers the inquiry posed to Caldwell in the first lines of the film “what makes you want to climb something like Dawn Wall”. Some climbers may be uncomfortable with the answers it provides.
I went with slightly low expectations being over-familiar with the stories and having heard it was a Hollywoodisation of Yosemite history (Sender + BigUp have form with Valley Uprising). It’s clearly targeted at the Netflix audience that made that film a breakout and measured against that aim it is a great success. I really enjoyed it and not just from the obvious joy of seeing Yosemite in a proper cinema.
It’s largely a portrait of Caldwell rather than a climbing film. The first half will be familiar to readers of The Push: his unusual childhood and Father’s idiosyncratic parenting, the fateful trip to Kyrgyzstan (very powerful), marriage to Roden and divorce (both interviewed, treated more even-handedly than in the book), subsequent depression then channeling this into the seemingly Quixotic attempts on the Dawn Wall. The second half focuses on the climb itself and especially Jorgeson’s increasingly despairing efforts to finish ‘the pitch’ until, with perfect timing, he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. My hands were sweating even though I knew the outcome. The final scene features Caldwell’s two year old son bouldering, completing the narrative arc.
The film is exemplary in how it presents modern rock climbing to a wider audience. Explaining the process of multi-pitch climbing was elegantly done. We got a real sense of the long-term project, the drama in the emotional commitment not the risk-taking. Occasionally, the buttons are pressed a little too blatantly for the taste of an uptight Englishman and there is too much space given to the mass media coverage, an opportunity for some knowing winks to climbers, and the one point where the film allows itself to be distracted from the main story. The ruthless distillation of the tale to its essence has upset some cognoscenti: there is no sense anyone other than Caldwell, Jorgeson and Roden have ever climbed El Cap; no mention of the aid climbers who had passed that way (I can live with that); no acknowledgement of the supporting sherpas and, of course, no mention of Adam Ondra! Historical rigour would have diverted the flow of the story.
The biggest star of all is El Capitan and doesn’t she look glorious on the big screen.