November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
“The Longest Wave”
Directed by Joe Berlinger
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 13, 2019.
There comes a time in professional athletes’ lives when they have to decide when they’ll retire from professional sports competitions. But most athletes who’ve been world champions would say that even if they stop competing in professional sports, their sport of choice will always been in their blood. That’s certainly true for windsurfer Robby Naish, who started winning world championships in 1976 at the age of 13. Now that he’s middle-aged, he’s reached a crossroads in the inevitable decision on how much longer it will be before he officially retires.
“The Longest Wave” is ostensibly about Naish’s quest to find and ride the longest wave possible before his advancing age prevents him from taking the kinds of surfing risks that he could when he was younger. It’s a dream he’s been chasing since 2016. But the real issue, which becomes clear early on the documentary, is that Naish is kind of having a mid-life identity crisis. He didn’t really have a “normal” childhood. For decades, his entire life has been about surfing, so it’s unthinkable for him to have any career that doesn’t involve the sport.
“The Longest Wave” director Joe Berlinger doesn’t assume that viewers will know who Naish is before seeing this movie, so Berlinger takes a great deal of time (approximately the first half of the film) to show Naish’s life story, before the second half of the film focuses on Naish’s ultimate quest of finding the longest wave. Naish’s family members (including his father, mother, older brother and two daughters) and colleagues (including surfers Matt Schweitzer, Kai Lenny and Chuck Patterson) are among those who are interviewed. Naish chose Lenny (a Naish protégé in his 20s) and Patterson (a longtime friend who’s closer to Naish’s age) to accompany him on his international journey to chase the longest wave. Their globetrotting included trips to Namibia, Peru and Costa Rica.
Naish’s family members, friends and associates consistently describe him as someone who has a single-minded obsession with surfing and winning any surfing competition that he enters. One of his biggest flaws, they say, is that he’s a sore loser. But on the flip side, he’s also generous about helping and teaching other surfers. Naish essentially admits all of this is true, and he knows that his unwavering commitment to being a pro surfer (which includes constant traveling) has ruined his two marriages. He has a daughter from each of his failed marriages. Naish was going through his second divorce while making this documentary. His ex-wives are not in the film.
Lenny idolized Naish since he was a kid, and he is one of Naish’s best-known protégés, who went into business with Naish’s self-titled brand and signed with many of the same sponsors that Naish has. It should be noted that Red Bull has been a longtime sponsor of Naish, and “The Longest Wave” is from Red Bull Films, so there’s a lot of Red Bull product placement in the movie. Lenny’s smirky cockiness and mugging for the camera easily make him the most annoying person in the film. It’s not surprising later in the movie when he makes a decision that blindsides Naish, but an outside observer watching this documentary can see it coming from a mile away. Meanwhile, Naish’s longtime buddy Patterson has a laid-back presence that’s welcome when Naish and the other members of the team get too high-strung and agitated.
As if going through a divorce hadn’t been bad enough, Naish experienced some major setbacks during the making of this documentary, including a broken pelvis (which required a recovery of at least six months) and a broken foot. While traveling to Walvis Bay, Namibia, the Naish team had the bad luck of several of their luggage items (including Naish’s most-prized surfboard) not arriving, so they spent about six frustrating days watching the surf that they couldn’t ride.
It’s a testament to Naish’s perseverance that he didn’t let these obstacles deter him, but you have to speculate how much longer Naish will be willing to risk getting severe injuries, in order to pursue the kind of extreme surfing that he likes to do. He makes it clear in the movie that he has no regrets, and he’ll keep surfing as long as he’s physically able.
One of the best qualities of the film is the cinematography (there are some truly stunning aerial shots), and it’s why this movie should be seen on the big screen. However, the film’s editing needed to be tighter, because it looks like the filmmakers couldn’t really decide to make this movie a Naish biography or a story about his journey to find the longest wave, so they decided to mash up the two concepts in one movie. You’ll have to see this documentary to find out if Naish ever got to ride his longest wave. You don’t have to be a surfing fan to enjoy this film, because the movie is really about people defining for themselves how they want to chase their dreams.