My climbing experience is limited to tween birthday parties in gyms reeking of sweaty palm trees and stale granola bars. But as I watched the four elite female athletes featured in The Wall: Climb For Gold sprint like spider monkeys up bizarrely twisted walls, I found myself doing the same thing my childhood friends did when I hanging from a small knot, frozen and useless 20 feet in the air. From the comfort of my couch, I shouted, “Just take your foot off!”
But this documentary, originally released in January and coming to Netflix on Sunday, May 1, quickly shows that climbing is much more complicated than that. To quote Shauna Coxsey, one of the featured climbers: “You have no fucking idea what’s going on.”
Directed by Formula 1: Drive to Survive director Nick Hardie, The Wall: Climb For Gold follows four women from around the world from 2019 as they compete for a spot in the first-ever Olympic climbing competition. They are tasked with erecting massive indoor structures strewn with pegs that seem impossible to grasp – sometimes without even a rope to keep them aloft. We are shown an intimate glimpse into the physical and psychological hurdles facing Britain’s Coxsey, Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, American mountaineer Brooke Raboutou and Japan’s Miho Nonaka as they navigate training, injuries and compounded psychological struggles by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Wall allows us to pass seamlessly between the four countries. He achieves this feat by giving us a deep sense of place through stunning aerial shots: cliffs looming in the wilderness, Tokyo stretching beneath Mount Fuji, rock climbers scaling gigantic lighted walls in front of roaring crowds . By way of close-ups, she distils all this pressure on the humans who undergo it: white chalk coating the fingers, outstretched hands gripping the climbing holds. The frequent shifts in mood, pacing and visual style make us viscerally feel the contrast at the heart of the film: the golden glory of competition and victory, and the austere isolation of the gym where 99% of the style of Olympic life is actually happening.
As the four women overcome challenge after challenge, old home videos tell us about the childhood that brought them to this point. A little girl climbing over a door frame and doing wild flips. The first pair of used climbing shoes. A father’s arms reached out to catch his daughter if the booming rock plunged.
Watching the parents is equally fascinating. A family weeps in agony as another across the world jumps for joy. (I can hardly imagine the pride and nerves you’d feel sitting in a stadium and watching your child compete for Olympic gold. Even less so during a pandemic that forces you to cheer them on from behind a TV screen.)
With their sculpted muscles and seductive agility, these athletes seem invincible. But they are beaten again and again by constant, suffocating stress. Whether it’s feeling like you owe the world perfection, missing out on a normal life, fighting the very real possibility of ruining the big day – climbing is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. Add to that a year-long delay and the uncertainty of the pandemic, and it’s a recipe for psychological havoc.
Still, The Wall is a story of remarkable resilience. Going into this sports documentary, I was expecting, well, a sports documentary. And, yes, it provided all the suspense and adrenaline rush one could want. But Hardie’s film succeeds in showing us human beings in the spotlight. At their core, these are women who really, really love rock climbing.
PS Nainita Desai, the composer behind the film’s epic yet polished score, deserves a nod. And a price! Warning: the soundtrack is so motivating that it may compel you to start climbing vast vertical surfaces.