Film Review: Take Every Wave Is an Impressive Doc Whether You Surf or Not

After tackling such subjects as prisoner abuse involving U.S. soldiers and detainees in Ghosts of Abu Ghraib; the life of grandmother Ethel Kennedy in Ethel; and the last weeks of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in the Oscar-nominated Last Days in Vietnam, filmmaker Rory Kennedy has decided to spotlight sports and lifestyle icon Laird Hamilton, whose contributions and innovation to various forms of surfing are the stuff of legend. Hamilton is now primarily known for the leaps he made in big-wave surfing, but he did so on his own timeline and without the benefit of ever being a professional surfing competitor. Take Every Wave may not feel like it would appeal to those audience members unfamiliar with the surfing world (myself included), but the truth is the sight of a human being on a surfboard being positively dwarfed by a deadly, massive wave is nothing short of awe inspiring.

Image courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

Kennedy walks us through Hamilton’s life, being raised by a single mother and later by a surfing stepfather that he both admired and feared. The sheer volume of archival footage of Laird, even as a young man, is incredible, but the surfing communities of Kauai, California, and Bermuda were never known for being shy (unless they were protecting a secret location from being discovered by the masses). There never seems to be a shortage of still photographers and camera crews on hand to capture a never-ending amount of failed attempts and then those breathtaking successful runs that Laird and his team always managed to reach.

Take Every Wave doesn’t shy away from Hamilton’s shortcomings, and considering how much he had going for him—good looking, charismatic, a quick study, an uncanny knowledge of weather patterns and tides—it’s good to know he has one or two flaws, including being so focused on surfing that he frequently left behind the friends and teammates that helped put him on top in an effort to advance as a spokesperson for the sport. In a handful of impressively personal interviews, Hamilton says he regrets the way he carried out some of these changes in his life, but doesn’t regret the decision to make the changes. The film cuts back and forth between Hamilton’s history and his modern-day attempts to perfect a style of surfing known as foil (or hydrofoil) surfing that actually causes the board to leave the surface of the water at much faster speeds than traditional longboards do.

One of the biggest challenges Hamilton presently faces is age and the pain that comes with doing what he does for as long as he’s done it (he’s 53 years old this year). He’s clearly uncomfortable talking about the fact that he’ll probably need hip surgery or replacement very soon, and just looking at his ankle x-rays hurt my eyes. The film also deals with the other aspect of becoming an older adult, involving his family (wife Gabrielle Reece and their three daughters) and not wanting to risk his life too much—although he does attempt one of his most dangerous feats in more recent years. One of his friends says that Laird surfs as if the “fear button” is turned off, so maybe his gauge for danger is askew.

Take Every Wave is a terrific biopic, a visual feast of human achievement and limits, and, not surprisingly, something of a gloss of Hamilton’s life. But he’s not without his naysayers. I’ve seen Hamilton in other surfing docs like Endless Summer II and Riding Giants, but this film does the better job of capturing his total story and his strengths as an innovator and a man who is always testing himself and changing the sport he loves so that he doesn’t get bored with it. Even as someone who never gave this sport a second thought, it’s an impressive series of accomplishments, all done on his own terms.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. After the 7pm showings on both Friday, Oct. 20 and Saturday, Oct. 21, director Rory Kennedy will appear for audience Q&As.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.