Director – Sam George
Length – 117 minutes without commercials
Installment – #52 in 30 for 30/ESPN Films series
Most Similar To – Without Bias, Benji, Into The Wind
Grade – Middle 20 of 30 for 30 docs
Review – I’ve been eagerly awaiting the return of 30 For 30 for quite some time. The first documentary in the new slate of films is Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau.
Credit to ESPN Films, as they’ve really done a great job spreading the focus of the series to cover a lot of sports, regions, personalities, and narratives. Eddie Aikau was a name that was unfamiliar to me, which was exciting given there are very few of these films that seem totally fresh. But what was evident in some of the teaser descriptions of the film as well as the first dozen minutes was that this was going to be somewhat of a tragic story.
A fringe niche sport coupled with a mostly unknown individual and a tragic ending had me very skeptical about how well the film would rate among other 30 for 30 peers. Looking at the portfolio of films thus far, some of those that have struggled at times have been those that have to rely primarily on testimonial interviews and lacked oodles of relevant archival footage, fresh behind the scenes footage, and didn’t have access to the featured personality in question.
The other thing that stood out to me while watching was that it seemed logical to guess that Aikau perished doing what he loved, surfing big waves. So early in, I was of the thought this could end up being one of the more forgettable films.
All that said, Hawaiian does hold up well and a lot of it is because of how fresh the material is to the average viewer. The film includes a lot of surfing history as well as Hawaiian history that I’m going to assume will be new to most viewers. Getting a crash course on both fronts was a nice touch and one that helped broaden the focus of the documentary.
Aikau himself, as well as his family, were compelling personalities with stories to keep you engaged although you dreaded the assumed tragedy that was presumably coming.
One unfortunate thing is that the majority of the film chronicles Aikau and the Hawaiian surfing scene in the 70’s, an era that unfortunately has very little usable media footage to help bring Aikau to life. Although we see photos, interviews, some recordings, and footage of Aikau surfing, the connection between the viewer and Aikau himself is a bit thin despite poignant attempts of his family members and peers to bring him to life. Essentially, you don’t really feel you don’t know him that well although a lot of that does change in the end when the circumstances of his death become revealed.
Depending on how palatable a sad ending is for you, the film somewhat hinges here. For me, I found myself unbelievably intrigued and fixated on that unexpected turn. Aikau’s story and significance jumps a good deal here as he morphs from Hawaiian sporting hero and good guy, to a mythical cultural icon whose legacy lives on.
In the end, Aikau’s story is certainly worthy of placement in this prestigious series. It’s definitely not one of the elite films, but certainly not one of the worst. Ultimately it’s not the story nor the direction of the movie that brings it to the middle of the pack, but the lack of media assets to move the film along. It is a great story and one you likely haven’t heard before. I’d certainly recommend watching as long as some unexpected misfortune won’t ruin your day.