'Riding Giants': Catch the Wave
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page WE41
THERE'S A double entendre in the title of "Riding Giants," a top-notch surfing documentary that refers not only to big water, but big people. It not only succeeds in re-creating the pulse-pounding thrill of riding giant waves, but tells the dramatic story of the giant men (and occasional, average-size women) whose lives revolved around riding them.
Correction: Make that "revolve around." To pro-skateboarder-turned-filmmaker Stacy Peralta ("Dogtown and Z-Boys"), a longtime surfer himself, the story of big-wave surfing isn't over, not by a long shot. Peralta is clearly interested in touching all historical bases, beginning with the sport's Polynesian roots, and then moving on to give props to such legendary early surf stars as Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968), who popularized surfing in the 1920s. Despite a respect for the past, though, Peralta is careful not to make "Giants" seem too much like a museum piece. Even when he sits down with his camera for interviews with such pioneers of surfing's mid-20th-century boom as Greg "The Bull" Noll (who today looks pretty much like any beefy, graying, bespectacled retiree in an aloha shirt), the stale air in the room is suddenly swept away with a spray of salt air and blowing sand.
In other words, there's nothing dry or stagnant about "Riding Giants," a movie that loves moving water so much that folks sitting in the first few rows of the theater may want to think about wet suits.
From the mild to fearsome Hawaiian wave breaks at Makaha, the North Shore of Oahu, Waimea Bay and Peahi to Northern California's frigid Maverick's (a treacherous spot first surfed by a 17-year-old kid named Jeff Clark in 1975) and the towering hydraulics of Tahiti's bone-rattling Teapuhoo (pronounced "cho-pu"), "Giants" spends as much time in the water as out of it. What is perhaps most astonishing about the film is not how vividly some of its interview subjects seem to recall one specific wave they caught years or even decades ago, but how much of what is reminisced about with almost misty-eyed reverence was actually captured in still photos and motion pictures. Nowadays, naturally, everybody and his brother has a video camera in their back pocket, so there's even more footage of, for instance, Laird Hamilton, an executive producer of the film who is acknowledged (at least in this movie) as the superstar in the sport of surfing today.
To hear some of these guys wax ecstatic -- and with the exception of surfer Sarah Gerhardt, they are all guys -- it's not hard to understand why these people risk their lives for the rush afforded by big-wave surfing. And lest we forget that this is a life-or-death game, Peralta addresses with unblinking frankness the deaths of surfing greats Dickie Cross in 1943 at Waimea Bay and of Mark Foo in 1994 at Maverick's. Whether the danger be from sharks, rocks or the awesome power of the ocean itself, it is clear that facing the risks -- and ultimately overcoming them -- is what makes the sport so addictive.
For a chair-bound, ink-stained wretch like myself, there's something incredibly, vicariously liberating about watching and listening to these sunburned, weather-beaten rebels talk about the kick they get from "riding giants," which more than one of them compare to the high experienced at the birth of a child.
They call it "freedom," but it's nothing other than the feeling of love, really. And when Noll starts to cry a little bit as he tells of standing at the shore not too long ago watching the surf (which he likens to a beautiful woman he once knew who still winks at him and says, "I remember you"), it's a sensation you'll want to run out and get for yourself. By land or by sea, there aren't many movies that can move you like that.
RIDING GIANTS (PG-13, 101 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, footage of dangerous surf and discussion of surfers who have died in rough water. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Surfers remember Mark Foo at Maverick's, where the surfer died in 1994, in "Riding Giants."
(Doug Acton -- Sony Pictures Classics)