Movie Review

Wave theory explained in ‘The Life of Laird Hamilton’

Laird Hamilton in Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Take Every Wave.”
Sundance Selects
Laird Hamilton in Rory Kennedy’s new documentary, “Take Every Wave.”

Three years ago, Rory Kennedy gave us the politically charged “Last Days in Vietnam.” Her new documentary examines a subject almost devoid of politics and referring only to itself and its own circumscribed world. 

“Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton” presents a comprehensive portrait of the title surfing superstar. It draws a circle from his childhood in 1960s Hawaii, where he was part of an Eden-like surfing community, back to the islands in 2016 as Hamilton prepares to take on giant El Niño-powered waves.

Drawing on archival images, often of sublime beauty, and showing some impressive oceanic camerawork of its own, the film elegantly skims the subject’s life. It also descends metaphorically to depths that confront the existential drive of the daredevil’s dangerous desire to take on all those waves.


Hamilton’s origins have an almost mythic quality. His father left his mother before he was born. 

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One day, as a toddler, Laird saw Bill Hamilton, then only 17 but well on his way to becoming a surfing legend, at the beach. “Can you be my father?” the boy asked. 

He led the teenager to meet his mother, then 23, and the pair were married shortly afterward.

Bill Hamilton — who is among those interviewed in the film — was a good instructor, but he was a better motivator. He was a strict, even abusive disciplinarian, according to reports. At the same time, Laird, one of the few white kids at a school consisting mostly of indigenous Hawaiians, was often bullied. He sought peace and vindication on the waves, and was quickly seen as a great natural talent bound for big things.

Like 50- to 100-foot waves, including those at Maui’s primal Peahi break and Tahiti’s legendary Millennium Wave. Laird wasn’t interested in competition; he sought innovation and wanted to push his sport to its limits. He pioneered tow-in surfing, which uses a boat or jet ski to tow a surfer to deep water and the prospect of towering waves. He also experimented with foil boarding, which requires an attachment that is like a fin on a stilt submerged in the water. These innovations were decried by many surfing purists. Meanwhile, he indulged in death-defying, record-breaking windsurfing feats and ventured off into prone paddling — lying flat on a board and propelling it with his arms — across the English Channel.


Such extreme commitment takes a personal toll, and not just physical injuries like his numerous fractures and a crippling arthritic hip. His wife Gabby Reece — a pro volleyball player and a great athlete in her own right — talks about their near divorce when she had trouble dealing with his “moods.” Old friends stand by him and extol his greatness in interviews, even though some were left behind in Hamilton’s pursuit of perfection.

And what is perfection for an extreme athlete like Laird Hamilton? Perhaps it is summed up in a breathtaking, extreme-slow motion image in which he is scrunched up in the calm, empty tube of a huge rolling wave, the womb-like space where he says he finds true peace. Like other documentaries such as Marah Strauch’s “Sunshine Superman” (2014), about BASE jumper Carl Boenish, “Take Every Wave” profiles an extreme athlete who performs feats that most of us can only dream about, for reasons that we can almost understand. 

Director Rory Kennedy will be on hand to answer questions at the 6:30 p.m. screening on Oct. 14 at Kendall Square.

TAKE EVERY WAVE: The Life of Laird Hamilton

Directed by Rory Kennedy. Written by Mark Bailey and Jack Youngelson. At Kendall Square. 118 minutes. Unrated (crazy risk taking).  

Peter Keough can be reached at