Waiting For Lightning is part Danny Way biography, and part rationalization of how Way’s two decade-spanning career reached its current stage of “Evel Knievel stuntman shit.” The first half of the documentary operates as an Epicly Later’d-esque clip show narrated by Way’s family and friends, while the other is a two-month countdown chronicling the preparation for his jump over the Great Wall of China. The two stories gradually tie closer together, with the biography serving as a primer for the sight of Way skating over a manmade object once assumed to be visible from outer space. (It’s not, but still.)
In a way, the film has been in the making for over twenty years. It is directed by Jacob Rosenberg, who had met Way in the H-Street days, and filmed him for the company’s now-classic videos. Their collaborative relationship carried over to Plan B, and has continued ever since. Rosenberg took a deep dive into dusty tape boxes to provide the film with plenty of unseen archival footage and skate nerd trivia, touching on the Bones Brigade, Del Mar Skate Ranch, H-Street, Plan B, etc. in the process.
Trivia aside, Waiting For Lightning‘s interviews, the majority of which are handled by Way’s mother, brother, and several close friends (Way himself takes up maybe one-fifth of the time spent on interviews), tell stories of the relationships that helped him achieve each milestone in his career. His formative years were spent having to prove himself in the shadow of an older brother and his friends. The beginning of his skate career was under the guise of a supportive stepfather, a relationship that the film leaves somewhat unresolved (“People grow apart”), only to have it return in a profound way near its end. Plan B founder Mike Ternasky’s influence on Way’s ascent to stardom is also given a proper chunk of the story.
The big question surrounding Waiting For Lightning was how it would approach Way’s relationship with former H-Street teammate, Josh Swindell, or more specifically, his presence on a night in 1993 when Swindell beat a man (who by most accounts, was gay) to death and eventually received a 15-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. Way was never officially brought up on charges or suspected, but the rumor mill that is the skateboarding world has gone on about the incident to this day. The film had a chance to quell two decades of speculation. Instead, it frustratingly avoids the subject. There is a difference between a biography and a P.R. film, and when the more difficult-to-handle events of someone’s life are left out, the project begins to feel like the latter. Perhaps having the subject of a documentary and the documentary itself share a sponsor is not the best idea.
Halfway into the film, sometime around when Way jumps out of a helicopter into a vert ramp, Waiting For Lightning begins to feel a need to explain why Danny Way is Danny Way, which admittedly, is difficult to do.
During a post-viewing Q & A, Rosenberg was upfront in acknowledging that the film was made with a midway point between skate nerds and regular audiences in mind. Skateboarding is relatively new to the general public — these are the people who appreciate it in terms of how many spins someone does or how far they jump — and unfortunately, even Danny Way is not afforded the “great because he’s great” luxury that, you know, a Michael Jordan is.
As Way’s life story catches up to the Great Wall jump in the final twenty-five minutes of the film, it gets stuck in moments of heavy-handed narration and over-explanation, even resorting to the “Skateboarders see the world differently” line that seems programmed into every skateboard documentary in existence. To a skater, Danny Way is jumping over the Great Wall of China because, well, he’s Danny Way, and that’s what he does. To the casual viewer, he is doing it because “It’s the next step, he must push himself, and he must do it to progress his sport” (that’s not word-for-word, but the general idea), and to us (skateboarders), these overwrought statements from the narrators come off as proverbial subtitles for a language we already know.
It is hard to fault Rosenberg for having to “explain” the motivation behind Way’s achievements, because the film is intended to be seen by audiences who may not care about how H-Street became Plan B. The sight of a guy jumping 55 feet on a skateboard is unfathomable to just about anyone, but the levels of exposition required when it is being shown to a room full of people who have never ridden a board, versus those who know what it feels like to kick your own ass in an effort to land a seemingly meaningless trick are much different. Rosenberg is in a class of remarkably few who have transitioned from skate videography to feature filmmaking, and nobody gets there by making movies strictly for skateboarders.
Michael Jordan didn’t win six championships because he wanted to progress basketball, and Danny Way didn’t build and skate mammoth concoctions of wood and steel so that maybe one day, a 12-year-old could do a 1080. But if “progress” is the angle you settle on, so that your film about one of skateboarding’s greats and his most grandiose achievement could be seen by more people, so be it. To the film’s credit, it dwells on the selfishness of Way’s craft and skateboarding as whole, something outsiders often comfortably mistake as a grab for attention. By the end, you get the feeling that if there was a natural ramp over the Great Wall, and no cameras around or such a thing as professional skateboarding, he probably would have done it anyway.
In one of the film’s few lapses into (possibly unintended) humor, the designer responsible for the ramp over the Wall calls Way to tell him that due to an oversight, the gap is going to be 65-to-70 feet instead of the projected 55. “Is that too gnarly?” he asks. There is a pause. “No.” Another brief pause. “Nothing’s too gnarly.” Treat Waiting For Lightning as 90 minutes spent with one of the gnarliest human beings alive, and you should enjoy it.