“We were really under pressure—if we didn’t get the story right, we could never go back to Hawaii again,” director Sam George told the Tribeca Film Festival in an interview about Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. Rest assured Sam, you got it right. You knocked it right out of the park.
George teamed with Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants) and the ESPN “30 for 30” series to make this epic documentary that touches not only on Eddie’s life, but on the cultural history of Hawaiian surfing. If you surf, you know how this story ends, but George and Peralta still manage to build a significant amount of drama leading up to Eddie’s ill-fated voyage on the Hokule’a. They do this in a couple ways. One, by tying the erosion of Hawaiian culture in the wake of European colonialism to the importance that native Hawaiians have attached to surfing. After Hawaiians had been forced from power in their own country, the surf was one of the last refuges—culturally and physically—they had left. Second, the filmmakers set up a three-way tension between Eddie; a budding rivalry with his younger brother Clyde; and the rampaging Bronzed Aussies who terrorized North Shore lineups in the ’70s, quickly wearing out their welcome. When Eddie finally wins the Duke Kahanamoku Classic in 1977, you share his relief. When he secures a spot as a crew member aboard the Hokule’a—a vessel charged with retracing the ancient Polynesian migration route from Tahiti to Hawaii— you can feel his pride.
George assembled a solid cast of talking heads for Hawaiian: members of the Aikau family, including Eddie’s ex-wife Linda Crosswhite; professors of Hawaiian history; big-wave surfing luminaries; and surf historians. Their interviews are blended with a well-curated assortment of archival film footage, featuring some great sequences of ‘60s and ‘70s-era Hawaiian surfing. Where film footage wasn’t available, George plugged the gaps with reenactments, but they never feel cheesy or out of place. For example, the film opens with a haunting reenactment of Eddie paddling the open ocean in a desperate attempt to send help back to the capsized Hokule’a. Knowing what that paddle cost Eddie, you’re instantly emotionally invested in the story.
Josh Brolin, Oscar-nominated actor and lifelong surfer, provides the narration, and his stately, gravely voice is exactly what you want. If there’s an award that could be given for best hair in a documentary interviewee, Rabbit Bartholomew would win hands down. Kimo Hollinger, Greg Noll, and Clyde Aikau provide some occasionally hilarious commentary. Everything is filmed beautifully, as the ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries always are, and the emotional and historical pieces fit perfectly. As the film closes, you’re left humbled and teary-eyed, not because of sadness, but because the story of Eddie’s bravery is so beautifully told. Bravo.