In an interview with Variety, documentary filmmaker Chris Smith admitted to a lack of attraction to surfing, films about the sport, or its culture.
His acquiescence to direct HBO’s 100 Foot Wave docuseries was instead the magnetism of one Garrett McNamara, big-wave guru and an “interesting character” to focus on, Smith said. The six-episode series follows McNamara’s trials and tribulations to develop Nazaré, Portugal as a premier big-wave riding destination.
Maybe the focus on individuality, dredged through by the Fyre and Operation Varsity Blues director with a painfully erratic pace makes the series feel more like true crime than a heralding of McNamara’s (and others’) efforts.
While the obvious light at the end of the tunnel is riding the 100-foot wave, darkness shrouds the project in an inescapable gloom. The viewer feels more hopeful early in the series, where city hall worker Dino Casamiro plants a seed about Nazare’s potential via a well-timed email. From there, McNamara and his wife Nicole work to mold the historic seaside town into a surf haven.
Footage of Nazaré is everything you could dream of and more, with huge plumes of whitewater breaking in slow motion under grey, cold skies. This chill is accentuated with interviews of McNamara’s team, onlookers, and other members of the surfing community.
McNamara makes it clear that there were few outside of the Nazaré community that took his goals seriously. Catching his first 80-foot wave garnered international media attention, but still not many came to chase giants of their own. Two surfers who do are Al Mennie and Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, once a strong, boisterous towing team that split ways after a tour at Nazaré, an end left unexplained.
If the series wasn’t walking on eggshells around that pair, Brazilian charger Maya Gabeira’s near-death accident at the Portugal behemoth is treated with sparse concern. Interviews with McNamara and fellow Brazilian Carlos Burle portray a tense divergence of views on the event, with the scenes leading the viewer to believe that even as Gabeira was still in the hospital, Burle was focused solely on breaking the world record. To add insult to injury, Laird Hamilton, a rightfully included voice in the series, criticized Gabeira’s ability as a surfer in that kind of wave. The discord is left for you to sort, as impossible as it may be.
Beyond these interactions, along with a focus on lifelong trauma faced by Garrett and brother Liam as well as suicidal ideations surged by surfing injuries, there’s not much besides that beautiful footage. And yes, it might not be healthy or worth it to dwell, but further examination of these and other issues might work to help the audience understand a troubled past rather than just make it a complex history lacking explanation.
It is rewarding to see the town’s recognition come to fruition, McNamara’s work and recovery thrive, and a slow but eventual pilgrimage over to the mysterious shorebreak adjacent to the main wave, but it’s obvious that none of this seems the point of the series. It’s a nosy, surveying eye that looked to unravel tensions without any real work to resolve them. It wasn’t passion that fueled this series, or at least, it wasn’t McNamara’s passion that was centered. What you’re left with is a shell of a story, one that looks good enough visually to belong to HBO, but lacks the proper telling.