The fabulous surfing footage is the best—and perhaps only—reason to see Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, an overlong and underwhelming documentary about the pioneering big wave surfer. In fact, viewers unfamiliar with the legendary athlete will learn more about Hamilton reading his Wikipedia page than they will in Rory Kennedy’s disappointing film.
Take Every Wave chronicles Hamilton’s early years, which involved moving to Hawai’i with his mother. He meets surfer Bill Hamilton who became his stepfather. Laird often misbehaved and was punished as a youth. Dropping out of high school, he did some modeling and made a movie, North Shore, eventually finding his greatest success as a non-competitive big wave surfer. Hamilton later got into windsurfing, and tow-in surfing to reach big waves far off shore, and explored foiling, a type of surfing that adds speed by riding above the surface of the water.
Hamilton is certainly a significant figure in the sport, but Take Every Wave does not inspire. The film is a largely uncritical look at Hamilton that falls just short of being a hagiography. There are a few mentions that the surfer is not unlike his unlikeable villain, Lance Burkhart, from North Shore, and there is a brief episode of tension in Hamilton’s marriage to Gabrielle Reece. There is also a conflict raised late in the film involving a group of surf buddies. But mostly Hamilton’s achievement and surfing prowess are on display.
And this is what most folks who would go see a documentary on Laird Hamilton would expect and want to see. So there is glorious footage of Hamilton learning to surf at Pipeline, making “Strapped” videos, and achieving his “defining moment” riding the heaviest wave in Tahiti.
These episodes are peppered with anecdotes from friends like Buzzy Kerbox, who amuses recounting their experiences jumping off a cliff to paddle from Corsica to Elba, a distance far greater than the guys imagined. However, other interviewees from Surfer magazine editors to members of the surfing community mostly just praise Hamilton and re-emphasize his risky nature, describing him as “skilled but crazy.” Even those who are bitter towards him for past wrongs seem to have forgiven him.
Take Every Wave thinks having Hamilton describe the appeal of surfing as an “escape” from the problems he had on land provides insight. It’s not enough. His greatest vulnerability appears to be his ailing hip. Hamilton, however, prefers to power through the season, rather than correct the problem. The film is full of such skin-deep revelations. At least the surfing scenes are worthwhile.
Take Every Wave opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.