‘Waiting for Lightning’ beautiful to watch but unable to balance a two-pronged story

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Waiting for Lightning

Directed by Jacob Rosenberg

Written by Bret Anthony Johnston

USA, 2012

Waiting for Lightning represents a war, a struggle of duality in documentary form. This 90-minute look at the life of skateboarder Danny Way and his insane but inspiring attempt to skateboard across and over the Great Wall of China, at its core, is unable to make these strands connect naturally. The film is well-made, certainly, and Way’s daring folly in China is fascinating. As hypnotic as it can be to watch him skate up and down a half-pipe, though, Danny Way’s story feels a bit too slight to fill out a feature-length film.

The biographical aspects of Way’s life are interspersed with the lead-up to the fateful stunt in 2005. Waiting for Lightning posits that Way, whose father died when Danny was very young, was innately equipped to pick up a skateboard and try new stunts, even if he got bruised on the way down. The traumas that forged him, we’re led to believe, are what made him such a great skateboarder. In the buildup to the actual jump on the Great Wall of China, we see Way create a so-called Megaramp that enables him to break world records for the longest jump by a skateboarder (and also hurt himself badly on national television), among other feats of derring-do.

As compelling as both halves of Waiting for Lightning are—and make no mistake, this is a slick, fast-paced film that’s never dull—they are at odds with each other. The various participants in the documentary, from Danny’s brother and DC Shoes co-founder Damon to Danny’s managers to skateboarding legend Tony Hawk to his mother, gush in their praise of this man and his innovative, unflagging spirit. The film doesn’t shy away from displaying how much he acted out as a teenager without much parental supervision, but this is hagiography from top to bottom with, in some ways, an odd omission.

Discussing that omission would, perhaps, be spoiling the outcome of Waiting for Lightning. Does Danny survive the jump? Is it safe for him to do so, even if the Chinese government approved of the stunt? If he does jump, and does survive, does he survive in such a way that he can skate again? The stakes, as presented within the first five minutes or so, are extraordinarily high. Each of the talking-head interviewees emphasize the severity of the stunt, how fearless Way must have been to take this leap. But once you know the answer—and you could search for him on Wikipedia in a minute’s time to find out if you were curious—you may wonder why Way himself doesn’t take part in the interviews. The director made a calculated decision to let others talk him up, to let other people tell us why Danny Way is such an icon of the sport of skateboarding. However, the movie’s also attempting to build suspense throughout by making us wonder—at least, if we don’t know Way’s work already—if he makes it out alive. When we find out, it makes you question the structure of what came before, feeling like a cheat.

That aside, the skateboarding footage is presented as close to visual poetry. You almost wish the whole of Waiting for Lightning was dedicated to such footage, watching greats of the sport like Way, Hawk, and Rob Dyrdek (another interviewee here) at work. The near-deification of Way, an athlete in such control of his talents, is less appealing throughout. If his life had been framed a bit more by his restlessness, his lack of satisfaction at his many achievements, the biography would be more palatable. But too often, we hear everyone tell us why Way is great, having won through adversity, as opposed to whatever inner conflicts he would self-identify with.

For its visuals and its subtle chronicling of how skateboarding has changed and evolved over the last 25 years, Waiting for Lightning is an intriguing and smart documentary, one that infrequently talks down to its audience. However, as a biography of courageous skateboarder Danny Way, Waiting for Lightning is less successful. Way’s life is undoubtedly fascinating, but director Jacob Rosenberg’s presentation of his life and career is too willing to glorify him to an almost laughable level. Waiting for Lightning is often a beautiful, in-your-face film to watch, just one that’s too bogged down with hero worship.

— Josh Spiegel

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