Bigger is Better 

Thrills, spills and unimaginable feats in surfing documentary Riding Giants

Thrills, spills and unimaginable feats in surfing documentary Riding Giants

Early in Stacy Peralta's entertaining and at times awe-inspiring documentary Riding Giants, big-wave surfing legend Greg "The Bull" Noll is shown staring out at Hawaii's Waimea Bay, where he sees an opportunity. Noll, who was to big-wave surfing in the mid-'60s what Dr. J. was to above-the-rim basketball, had migrated to Hawaii along with 50 or so other wave-enchanted young men, living off coconuts and speared fish so they could surf 10 hours a day. In the throes of what many describe as "the storm of the century," Waimea's normally 40-foot waves grew even more massive, and after some soul searching, Noll couldn't resist the challenge: he paddled in, and, in the several eyewitness accounts that follow, managed to catch what was considered at the time "the biggest wave ever ridden."

This pioneer spirit—or death instinct—describes the arc of Riding Giants. After Noll's legendary 1969 ride, the gauntlet had been thrown down, and big-wave surfers—a different breed entirely from their short-boarding, trick-performing, 10-foot-swell-riding cousins—started chanting a new mantra: seek not the perfect wave; seek the biggest one.

Beginning with the comically abridged "1,000 Years of Surfing in Two Minutes or Less," Peralta's documentary moves from Polynesia, the sport's birthplace, to the 18th century arrival of Christian missionaries who forbade the natives to surf, to nostalgic home footage of Noll and his counterculture compatriots, to the sport's popular explosion following the movie Gidget, to the feats of the reigning king of the sport, Laird Hamilton. Unlike his previous skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, Peralta is less interested in the idiosyncrasies of the sport's legends and the times that created them than in the post-1950s innovations that led to the sport's more and more mountainous conquests.

Along with Noll, there are heroes like Jeff Clark, a young surfer who grew up outside of San Francisco and discovered Maverick's Beach, a nearly inaccessible paradise he spotted hiking on the cliffs near his home one day. Braving water so cold it requires a dry suit to surf, among rocks so jagged they're lethal to anyone who founders against them, Clark is ultimately credited with bringing big-wave surfing back from Hawaii to mainland America. The film also chronicles the fates of its fallen heroes—men like Mark Foo, who died at Maverick's—and reminds the viewer, amidst all these acts of seemingly impossible athleticism and nerve, that every big-wave surfer risks his life with each ride.

But in the end, Riding Giants belongs to Laird Hamilton, the inventor of tow-in surfing, in which jet skis pull riders into waves too fast and massive to catch by human strength alone. Hamilton, who makes regular practice of riding 60-foot waves at speeds exceeding 35 mph, travels to Tahiti in search of the next "biggest wave ever ridden." He finds it, and his ride on this "freak of hydroponics" trumps every CGI effect you've ever seen—an achievement considered by the movie's experts to be "the most significant ride in surfing history." Like the rest of Giants, the ride will leave you totally stoked.

—Adam Ross

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