The most significant benchmark for a solid biographical documentary is whether it stokes the viewer’s interest in the world inhabited by the film’s subject. By this standard, director Rory Kennedy’s vibrant and disarming feature, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, is a robust success. By the time the credits roll, the viewer will almost certainly be awash in dazed awe for the sport of big wave surfing, if they were not already. It helps that the filmmaker’s subject is a natural fit for this sort of cinematic portraiture. Frank, feisty, and beach-bum handsome, Laird Hamilton is one of the great living surfing innovators, but also the kind of restless American seeker who makes for a compelling lead character.
This isn’t to say that Kennedy (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Last Days in Vietnam) merely had to point the camera at Hamilton and stay out of his way. Like most biographical non-fiction films, Take Every Wave eschews cinematic risk-courting, preferring a fleet, unfussy mixture of archival material and talking-head interviews. However, Kennedy’s feature is a particularly peerless example of this straightforward form. She packs the film’s nearly 120-minute running time with amiable personalities and astonishing footage, but resists the inclination to turn her documentary into a mere timeline of triumphs and tragedies. Discerning the novelty of Hamilton’s personality and philosophy, Kennedy shapes the film to conjure the veteran surfer’s spiritual essence from the raw material of colorful anecdotes and gnarly athletic feats. Kennedy is the shrewd and agile author, but it’s Hamilton’s film.
It’s easy to see why the documentarian defers to her subject in this way. Historically, Hamilton is arguably most renowned as one of the inventors of tow-in surfing, in which the assistance of a personal watercraft allows the surfer to attain the speeds necessary to catch truly colossal waves once regarded as ‘unrideable’. This contribution was momentous within the surfing world, and its story is a major component of the film, but it’s not the reason Take Every Wave intrigues. In truth, what animates the film is Hamilton’s distinctive outlook, which is characterized by an athlete’s drive and machismo, yet undergirded by the searching spirit of an explorer-pilgrim. When bronzed, brawny Hamilton describes himself as an astronaut, it doesn’t seem like boasting, but rather an accurate encapsulation of his frontier-seeking mentality.
Growing up first on Oahu’s legendary North Shore, and later Kauaʻi, Hamilton spent his youth steeped in the Hawaiian surf culture of the 1960s and 70s. His path was always unconventional, however, even for a beach rat. Dropping out of high school, he pursued a sideline as a model to fund his wave-riding pursuits, ultimately rejecting the contest-based professional surfing scene that he found stifling and arbitrary. His reputation was built not on titles, but on inventiveness and fearlessness, most notably as a member of the ‘Strapped Crew’. Outside-the-box radicals and canny self-promoters, the surfers that comprised Strapped developed the tow-in technique partly to tackle ‘Jaws,’ the fearsome break at Peahi, Maui. (Cinephiles, meanwhile, might recognize Hamilton from his turn as splendidly-named villain Lance Burkhart in the cult-ish 1987 surf film North Shore.) Unlike some tour-focused pro surfers, Hamilton proved to be an unabashedly catholic water sportsman, embracing paddle boarding, windsurfing, and kitesurfing—and often discovering new surfing advances in such secondary pursuits.
Kennedy shapes Take Every Wave around a past-and-present dual timeline structure, intercutting between a chronological account of Hamilton’s life and the surfing veteran’s contemporary routine of physical training and technical experimentation. In the film, his current project is a peculiar but fascinating hydrofoil apparatus that allows for negligible friction and epic-length rides. (There’s more than a touch of the gleeful tinkerer hidden within Hamilton’s daredevil persona.)
While Kennedy’s time-hopping approach might be a prosaic way to assemble a biographical feature, the director employs it marvelously. She gradually adds emotional heft to the relatively languid, reality-show vibe of the 2010s by repeatedly flashing back to formative events and periods from earlier decades. The present-day material has an inevitable dash of mortality’s shadow, as Hamilton wrestles with a fifty-ish body battered by a lifetime of crushing surf, all the while mentally tallying how many more seasons he might have left to pursue his passions. In this, the film favorably echoes the recent Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, another documentary feature in which a virtuoso strives to pull off a ‘controlled decent’ into inescapable physical diminishment with as much fortitude and grace as possible.
Hamilton proves to be blunt, enthusiastic interview subject: all twinkling eyes, no-bullshit charm, and self-deprecating wisecracks. While he exudes some of the wearying egocentrism one associates with elite athletes and media stars, he never comes off as outright insufferable. Besides the subject and his wife, pro volleyball champ Gabrielle Reece, the filmmakers have done a laudable job of assembling engaging luminaries from the surfing world to narrate the film’s story. Hamilton’s fierce ambition, controversial innovations, and media celebrity inevitably created some bad blood with other surfers over the decades, but the film is cagey about events that would cast its subject in a too-unflattering light. It’s forgivable when a marital rough patch with Reese is touched on evasively. Less so when Hamilton’s split with the Strapped team—evidently regarded as a financial and spiritual betrayal by some parties—is papered over as an uncomfortable but essential stepping stone in the man’s career.
Still, it’s telling that even estranged buddies and press adversaries unfailingly have moments when they can't conceal their wonderment at Hamilton’s talent, courage, and death-flouting achievements. These include his mind-blowing 2000 conquest of Tahiti's perilously shallow Teahupoʻo, a meat-grinder of a wave routinely regarded as the ‘heaviest ever ridden’. That singular feat—also documented in Stacy Peralta’s 2004 feature Riding Giants—forever sealed the surfer’s renown as one of the all-time greats. By weaving together still photography, video footage, and interviewees who struggle to summon adjectives, Kennedy grandly conveys the awed sense that Hamilton’s fingertips skimmed the outer limits of human possibility.
Kennedy is blessed with an embarrassment of archival film and video, and not just the material that documents Hamilton’s surfing exploits and media appearances. There are abundant home movie clips from his tow-headed childhood and adolescence, as well as charming slice-of-life glimpses of Hawaiian beach life in the 1960s – 80s in all is shirtless, bohemian glory. (One blink-and-miss-it moment catches Hamilton and his cohorts filching plantation pineapples just to have something to eat.) The film’s storytelling is bolstered immeasurably by appropriately lithe editing from Azin Samari, a rousing and eclectic score by Nathan Larson, and—understated but sneakily vital—sinuous animated flourishes that evoke currents and swells.
While Take Every Wave never achieves (or even strives for) formal boldness, it’s a consistently stimulating and captivating implementation of a tried-and-true formula. Granted, there’s a nagging sense that Kennedy accepted Hamilton’s version of events a little too uncritically, allowing the veteran waterman to etch his own legend. However, the film grasps and conveys the surfer’s estimable athletic ethos—which privileges trailblazing rather than ‘winning’—with supple self-possession. This suggests a director who, far from ceding the story to her subject, adroitly found his wavelength and then amplified it fill her film.