Review: In documentary ‘The Dawn Wall,’ not every obstacle is vertical

Kevin Jorgeson in the documentary "The Dawn Wall."
(Corey Rich / The Orchard)

Chronicling the daring attempt of a pair of rock climbers to scale the notoriously steep face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, “The Dawn Wall” transcends initial conventional sports documentary trappings, emerging as an affecting portrait of conquering personal limitations.

It was January 2015 when Tommy Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson attracted international attention in their bid to ascend the 3,000-foot granite expanse, but it turned out Caldwell, then 36, had already faced down his fair share of formidable obstacles.

Fifteen years earlier, he and a group of fellow climbers, including his then-girlfriend, were taken hostage by rebels during a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, where they were held captive for six days before plotting a daring escape. Subsequently, back in the relative safety of his Colorado home, he severed his left index finger while doing a DIY project, putting his climbing future in serious doubt.

While directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer spend too much time supplementing Caldwell’s backstory with an over-abundance of talking heads, they more than compensate with Brett Lowell’s spectacularly nerve-wracking camera-work tracking Caldwell and Jorgeson over the course of 19 extensively-documented days.


As the pair slowly, painstakingly reaches their physical goal, the film, which won the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, movingly examines the bonds of friendship between two individuals navigating that very fine line between dedication and obsession.


‘The Dawn Wall’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes


Playing: Starts Sept. 14, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica