Laird Hamilton is a legend in big-wave surfing and is acknowledged as one of the creators of tow-in surfing as well as an innovator in foil boarding. If that sentence is meaningful to you, then you’re square in the middle of the target market for Rory Kennedy’s documentary Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, a celebration of Hamilton’s career and of surfing in general. If you’re still wondering what size of waves most surfers ride, or what towing or foil could possibly have to do with surfing, you may still enjoy this film, particularly if you enjoy adrenaline sports (vicariously or otherwise) or are up for spending two hours watching attractive people do amazing things in photogenic settings.
To backtrack a bit, Hamilton made his name surfing giant waves, much larger than those featured in the professional surf contests you may have seen on television. Tow-in surfing allows a surfer to access much larger waves than he or she could reach by paddling, by using a jet ski to tow the surfer far from shore and hence into huge waves. Foil boarding adapts the principle of the hydrofoil to surfboarding, with a below-water hydrofoil allowing the surfboard to rise above the surface of the water if the surfer reaches sufficient speed. These innovations take surfing to a new level, making it even faster and more thrilling (and more dangerous as well).
Hamilton never went on the pro tour, preferring instead to seek out the biggest waves and to focus on the experience of surfing rather than on pleasing panels of judges. Blessed with All-American good looks (in another era, he could have enjoyed Rock Hudson-like fame based on his natural charm alone), he supported himself with modeling gigs (including one notable photo shoot with Brooke Shields) and appeared in several movies, most notoriously as the villain Lance Burkhart in North Shore (1987). Hamilton prospered despite his apparent disdain for making money (he claims at one point that he couldn’t be bothered to audition for modeling gigs—he just took those offered directly to him), and that approached seems to have worked out for him as today he is married to professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, has several children, and owns homes in Maui and Malibu.
Kennedy does not seek psychological depth in her portrait of Hamilton, focusing instead on stitching together the surface chronology of his life while expertly incorporating home movies and other archival materials into the narrative. It’s possible that she had no choice but to remain on the surface, because self-reflection doesn’t seem to be Hamilton’s strong point. To take one example, he relates being bullied as the rare white child in his Hawaiian school, but doesn’t connect that behavior with the long and predatory history of white Americans toward Hawaii. Kennedy also interviews other surfers about Hamilton’s importance to the sport, and at times the film threatens to shade over into infomercial or puff piece territory.
The real draw in Take Every Wave is the many shots of Hamilton and others surfing big waves. If there’s a more photogenic sport than surfing, I don’t know what it is, and this film’s cinematography (by Alice Gu and Don King, assisted by the best in modern technology, including drone shots) beautifully captures the splendor of the ocean on a sunny day and the thrill of watching surfers carve paths through enormous waves. Expert editing by Azin Samari and appropriate music from Nathan Larson, Meghan Currier, and Randall Poster enhance the viewing experience, and may even have you contemplating a trip to the West Coast to try out a few waves for yourself. | Sarah Boslaugh