By Rahul Desai
Tommy Caldwell, 37, may as well be scaling the moon. The moon is far away. It is an escape. From people, noise, attention…and pain. From the death of his marriage. The record-breaking American rock climber can’t actually reach the moon, but he can aim for the stars. He can replicate the vacuum of going for it. Whether he escapes 3000 feet into the sky with his bare hands or 384,400 kilometers into the sky in a space shuttle, the battle to stay alive is what will stop him from dying a little more inside. His heart beats so fast up there that he can’t hear it break anymore. For six years, he chooses to chart an impossible path to an improbable destination only so that he forgets where he came from.
Neil Armstrong, 39, may as well be scaling a vertical 3000-foot rock face in Yosemite National Park. The wall is far below him. Yet, it is as much of an escape. From people, noise, attention…and grief. From the death of his daughter. The record-breaking American astronaut can’t reach the top of El Capitan’s most daunting route, but he can aim for the moon. He can replicate the madness of going for it. Whether he escapes 384,400 kilometers into the sky in a space shuttle or 3000 feet into the sky with his bare hands, the battle to stay alive is what will stop him from dying a little more inside. His heart beats so fast up in space that he can’t hear it break anymore. For six years, he chooses to chart an improbable path to an impossible destination only so that he forgets what he came from.
Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s The Dawn Wall, a documentary chronicling the circumstances of free-climber Tommy Caldwell’s most audacious career achievement, is the spiritual twin of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a startling humanization of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s cosmic bravery. The men at the center of both films are vulnerable when they decide to become impenetrable. They are driven by personal loss, but sustained by the idea of public redemption. It is written that such men make history, but it’s history – their own past – that makes them.
Both the individuals think they are escaping and forgetting, when in fact they are only physically manifesting the act of remembrance. Armstrong goes to the moon because he subconsciously believes it will bring him closer to his little girl in heaven. Caldwell spends almost three weeks suspended on a vertical slab of stone because he subconsciously believes it might replicate the fear he felt when he was kidnapped with his ex-wife Beth by militants in the hills of Kyrgyzstan: a traumatic incident that united them forever. He equates a sense of mortal terror with the headiness of falling in love.
Even though First Man is a dramatized account of a real-life story, it feels like a subdued version of narrative fiction. The Dawn Wall is a real-life account of a dramatic story, and yet it internalizes all the motifs of narrative fiction. For instance, while speaking about his divorce, Tommy mentions that because he saved her life in Kyrgyzstan, Beth might have misinterpreted this overwhelming sense of reliance as long-term love. Not unlike Dean (Ryan Gosling) in Blue Valentine, who rescues Cindy (Michelle Williams) from a life of societal exile, Tommy literally rescues Beth by vanquishing their captor. He didn’t know it then, but dependence defined the core of their relationship’s foundation; love became a responsibility, by acquiring the selfless generosity of obligation.
She loves him like she owes him; she cheers for him, climbs with him, inspires him when he’s down, helps him recover from a crippling accident. She saves his life, his means of living…and leaves. Unlike Cindy, who resents Dean for being a nice but weak man, Beth makes Tommy strong enough to survive the agony of a broken heart. In his mind, this is how he has rationalized her ability to fall out of love with him. An Indian version of this dysfunction finds form in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, where, in an identical situation, the girl is simply not individualistic enough to leave the man who saved her life. She sees God in him, while Cindy and Beth are disillusioned enough to acknowledge that the men aren’t God despite their divine intentions.
Tommy couldn’t recognize the cracks in what he thought was a smooth marriage. So he goes about trying to locate the tiniest of cracks that will allow him to navigate the smoothest section of El Capitan. That’s where The Dawn Wall transcends the idea of cinema; it becomes a heightened study in humanity. Most of us always wish for that second chance. We try to right our wrongs by reliving the doomed journey in our heads. Even cricketers shadow-bat the shot they should have played when they walk back to the pavilion after being dismissed. Tommy actually relives it – his 19-day climb is not just a feat of extraordinary resilience, it is an upgrade of his failed partnership. The climb is what his marriage should have been. It is where the reality and expectation panels of his life finally converge.
For example, his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson, at some point, is left behind. He cannot cross a particular section. It is suggested that he is holding Tommy back, after which Tommy decides to ascend to his own high points. Tommy zooms ahead. But once he finishes the most difficult part, he breaks into tears on a seminal ledge. Legends are lonely because they can’t wait for others to catch up. He is, visibly, hit with an epiphany. It dawns upon him near the top of the Dawn Wall: Is Kevin a professional reincarnation of Beth? Did he leave Beth behind, too, in pursuit of his own dreams? The mountain has given him a chance to go back – in time, in space. To play the right shot. Everything has led to this moment. Which is when he decides to go back for Kevin; he cannot finish the journey alone when he didn’t start it alone.
For once, Tommy waits for as long as it takes. He feels the weight fade. When his partner begins to gain confidence, Tommy finds closure. He cheers for Kevin, climbs with him, inspires him when he’s down, helps him recover from crippling failure. He owes Kevin like he loves him. One small step for him becomes a giant leap for his kind. After all, a “First Man” exists only if he is followed by a second.