Waveriders (2008) – movie review

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Movie Review by Samuel Taradash

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Richard Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Kelly Slater

Director: Joel Conroy

With apologies to Thomas Cahill, this film could have been subtitled, “How the Irish Saved Surfing”. Covering Ireland’s influence on three eras of the sport, WAVERIDERS never fully succeeds as a single film. Part-financed by BBC Northern Ireland, The Broadcast Commission of Ireland, the Irish Film Board and Northern Ireland Screen, it sometimes overdoes the theme, leaving an arbitrary-seeming green tinge on an otherwise interesting history.

The first third of the film is devoted to the story of George Freeth, the 1900s athlete, public safety volunteer, and purported savior of modern surfing. Freeth achieved so much that it’s hard to separate his legend from his truly outstanding life. But the energetic story of his adventures in Hawaii and California makes for fascinating viewing. The historians chosen are engaging narrators, and in their passionate retellings Freeth becomes almost mythological, his deeds recalling “an age when ships were wood and men were iron.” His contributions to the foundations of surfing, swimming, and water safety are well worth exploring. But repeatedly mentioning his half-Irish heritage to justify his connection to a land he’d never even visited seemed like an unnecessary afterthought.

The second third examines the late 1960s and early 1970s, focusing on the evolution of surfing from a Hawaiian and Californian pastime to a global phenomenon. The origins of the vagabond, endless summer lifestyle attributed to the “soul surfer” are discussed here. Kevin Naughton’s and Craig Peterson’s stories of adventure seeking and travel writing are charming, and the beautiful photographs and Super 8 footage are telling artifacts of the era, capturing a sun-flushed innocence and energy. Their story could sustain an entire movie (as it did in the 2002 documentary THE FAR SHORE), but the way it’s re-connected to Ireland is, if not forced, then achieved with a minimum of grace.

The final section, about the modern trends of tow-surfing in the giant swells found off-shore, winter surfing, and the increasing ideological divide between soul surfers and competitive or professional surfers, also could have been a separate film. But by the time the brothers Malloy and their connection to surfing’s “green gem” of Ireland is taken care of, the momentum has almost completely died. Unless you already understand talk of “vicious, hard-breaking hollow slabs”, or “glassy stand-up tubes,” the other modern surfers’ wooden interviews don’t help at all. But the astounding surf footage carries the last third through. The action in WAVERIDERS is beautifully shot and edited. The surfers show amazing poise and daring amongst crushing waves, some over three stories high.

Modern surfing is evolving and branching in ways that the irrepressible Freeth couldn’t have imagined, and the development of surfing culture is unique in each place it gains a toehold. Ireland’s surfing is, no doubt, fascinating. But the insistent reminders of some essential Irishness smacked of tourism promotion films, and the dully inexpressive speech of modern surfers undermined the breathtaking footage of their dance along the edges of titanic, surging waves.

2 out of 6 stars