One of the revelations in "Riding Giants," a new documentary about guys (mostly) who surf really big waves, is that really big waves tend to look more or less alike. This at least seems the case to this reviewer, who finds 2-foot waves totally gnarly and prefers to experience the beauty of the watery part of the world from the safety of the shore. For those who do enjoy being smacked around by the ocean, for those who thrill to the romance and hype of extreme surfing and dig the outsider aspect of this rarefied culture or at least its marketed cool, this film will likely be their ticket to ride a board by proxy.
Those who enjoy listening to adult men enthuse about other adult men in a nonsexual albeit highly excited fashion will also find plenty to enjoy here. Directed by Stacy Peralta, a former skateboarding prodigy who grew up to make a very fine documentary about that sport ("Dogtown and Z-Boys"), "Riding Giants" features a lot of guys talking about other guys with the sort of enraptured awe often heard only in sports bars. Among those who testify to the deeds of surfing giants past and present is Greg Noll, a legend known for his striped trunks and daring back in the day, meaning before 1959, when the pathologically perky Sandra Dee hopped a board in "Gidget" and rode this cult into a phenomenon.
Before "Gidget," Peralta and co-writer Sam George argue persuasively, surfing was the provenance of Hawaiians and young Americans who, in the years following World War II, embarked on a journey of self-exploration much like the one Jack Kerouac took when he hit the road. Easily the richest and certainly most romantic part of "Riding Giants," the story of these men who dropped off the grid by dropping into the brine is also the part of the film that feels most like a real documentary rather than an extended-play commercial for a lifestyle. Using contemporary talking heads and a lot of great-looking archival footage, Peralta paints a vivid picture of the post-war surf world as a refuge, as a place where a certain kind of man could find himself far from the lonely crowd and its gray-flannel suits.
After "Gidget" and the ensuing beach culture craze, the romance went out of surfing, which was neither to the good of the sport or this movie. The craze inspired highs (the Beach Boys) and lows (Frankie and Annette), but after a while it didn't seem to inspire much of anything beyond a stream of technological advances and the inevitable commercialization. New boards led to bigger waves led to new boards led to still-bigger waves and, of course, surf-and-turf lifestyle companies like Quiksilver, which reportedly co-funded the documentary through its entertainment arm. In the end, the depressing story at the heart of "Riding Giants" is one we know well: some subcultures guarantee their co-optation. Such was the case with those early big wave riders, who, however cool, were not truly radical enough to protect the world they made.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language
Times guidelines: Big waves, adult language
A Forever Films and Studiocanal presentation in association with Quiksilver, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Stacy Peralta. Writers Stacy Peralta, Sam George. Producers Agi Orsi, Jane Kachmer, Stacy Peralta. Editor, co-producer Paul Crowder. Directors of photography Peter Pilafian, Don King (Hawaii), Sonny Miller (Hawaii), Grant Washburn (Mavericks). Featured surfers Greg Noll, Jeff Clark, Laird Hamilton. Music Matter. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. In selected theaters.