You’re almost certainly aware of the work of esteemed surf writer Steve Shearer- aka Longtom- undoubtedly one of the best ever to put pen to paper on the subject of wave riding and all that orbits it.
If you don’t already read his daily CT comp roundups over on Beachgrit, you’re missing out. But you’re not here to listen to us fangirl. You’re here to read his excellent review of Heavy Water, the brand new Nathan Fletcher biopic, an excerpt of which exists below.
We’ll be screening the film around the UK over the coming weeks, tickets are already selling fast, so get ’em while they’re hot.
“Since humans came out of the trees, or out of the swamps if you believe the aquatic ape theory, as I do, the earliest stories we have told ourselves have been of monsters of the deep.
The first literature we know of: Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh features heroes battling watery monsters. No wonder big-wave surfing, a modern day trope of the ancient theme, where surfers seek a “chilling ecstasy” in waves that can kill, exerts such an arresting influence on filmmakers and audiences alike.
The latest incarnation Heavy Water, by Sea of Darkness director Mike Oblowitz, examines the nexus of death and big-wave surfing through the deadpan delivery and life arc of Nathan Fletcher.
Films about big-wave surfing almost all suffer by succumbing to the irresistible temptation to over play the hand. Waving around fully erect for 90 minutes in a state of over engorged high drama makes for great trailers but terrible films.
Heavy Water is a different film altogether. Eschewing the constant drama it spends most of it’s time building and maintaining an atmosphere of claustrophobic dread.
In its treatment of the emotional and physical extremes of big-wave surfing and the reality of death it transcends its subject matter.
The greatest film about surfing ever made, I think. Please allow me to persuade.
Leathered ancient Woody Brown sets the emotional tone of the film in the opening montage.
“I loved to challenge death,” he claims, with the resulting thrill giving his life a frisson the unjazzed could never comprehend.
Nathan is introduced. We are all familiar with the broad narrative arc: son of Herbie Fletcher, brother of Christian, grandson to big-wave pioneers Flippy Hoffman etc. In a sense, it was a risk to hear Nathan speak. In doing so the danger was the mystique that surrounds him would be gone and gone for good.
A man of few words might be concealing anything, or nothing at all.
Thankfully, in Nate Fletchers case it’s a whole heap of the former.
Despite the advantages of the groomed industry upbringing Fletcher found his own path pretty quickly and it was radical. Falling into the orbit of surf/skate/punk icon Jay Adams shit got very loose, very quickly. The opening stanza of the film explores the influences of a radical California skate/punk culture that no longer exists. Its tentacles extended outwards across the Indo-Pacific.
Like every other cat my first OS trip was Bali.
Lacking a budget we crashed in the Ulu’s warungs, which you could do for free if you could handle rats, monkeys and lying on bamboo mats. I met Jay Adams and Owl Chapman and that’s what I thought surfing was: mushroom milkshakes, airs at low-tide Racetrack and Team Pain tattooed on a neck.
Jay had scary, don’t-give-a-fuck eyes and an unbelievable intensity which flies out of the screen in a scene where Nathan interviews him on home video. The film mostly skirts the darkness of Jay Adams. The next time I saw him was in the tenements of Sunset Vistas on Sunset Point. Jay busted through the door one night, as naked as the day he was born, hid in the bathroom for hours while men with baseball bats roamed the neighborhood, then slid into the surf and swam to safety somewhere. A dangerous friend.
His wasn’t the only radical friendship cultivated by Fletcher. He got cosy with the Irons Brothers at Pipeline. A mutual admiration developed. A kinship with Bruce had parallels with overbearing and aggressive older brothers, Andy gave Bruce hell and although it’s never explicitly stated in the film the presence of Christian in Nathan’s life has a hard edge to it that no editing can hide.
Things came to head on a pre-millennial trip to the Mentawais which coincided with Andy’s 21st Birthday. Andy tried to drink with Matt Archbold, a very unwise move according to Christian. He stopped breathing, poisoned. It was Nathan who found him and brought him back to life.
Life-and-death friendships and a calm intensity in heavy water dominate the second half the film as a sense of inevitability settles on the film. People seemed marked for death, or greatness, or both in the case of AI.
A delicious irony propels the narrative. Despite the Laird/Kalama team bathing in the glory of the tow-in revolution it was Nathan’s father Herbie who pioneered the use of power in the surf zone with jetskis at Pipeline. And it was Nathan who swung the pendulum back to paddle surfing in giant surf on the outer reefs of the North Shore. Phantoms, Himalayas, Outside Alligators, all tamed by Fletcher and pals on dedicated sleds built to get in early in thirty-foot-plus surf.
I fell head over heels for the film at this point….”