As I sit down to review Sam George’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau,” I’m having doubts as to whether I’m the right person for this job. There’s one simple reason: I’m biased – but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, I once worked with Sam George at Surfer Magazine. Yes, I’ve long considered Sam a friend and colleague – even if he did get in my way on a damned SUP the last time I was out shortboarding at Rincon (I hear this is a common complaint, Sam).
Rather, I fear I’m biased because at least part of my appreciation for this film lies in the fact that I make a tenuous living in journalism – and I had my journalist’s blinders on while tearfully watching this film.
I point this bias up front, because while I’m sure that essentially anyone who tunes in to “Hawaiian” during its October run on ESPN will thoroughly enjoy it, I’m not sure that everyone will appreciate the staggering level of research, love, work, blood, sweat, resin, wax and tears that Sam George and the team at Taublieb Films and Peralta Productions put into this film. As someone who, like Sam, works under the assumption that the stories of others are far more interesting than my own, I believe this to be one of the top five surfing-centered documentaries of all time. And “Hawaiian” is not just a great surfing documentary; it’s a great documentary, period.
We live in a world where any surfer filmmaker with a 7D, a GoPro and a passing familiarity with Final Cut Pro can produce a slice of hipster fodder with remarkable visual appeal. But to produce a television documentary with nuance, depth, emotion and history in a sad world where Discovery’s made-up “Megalodon,” or TLC’s “Honey Boo-Boo” and “Myrtle Manor” (with four cast-member arrests so far) pass for ‘documentary work’– you need determination, experience and the cred to override the “seasoned” 24-year-old producer who thinks the focus of the film should be whatever the hell he thinks it should be.
Really, “Hawaiian” could have easily been a theatrical release, along the lines of Peralta/George’s epic “Riding Giants,” but ESPN has thus far produced searing documentaries with its Peabody Award winning 30 For 30 series, and that’s why Eddie Aikau now has a seat at the table alongside Sugar Ray Leonard, Arthur Ashe, Bo Jackson and Wilt Chamberlain.
“Hawaiian” is also a film of trust and judgment. When you interview people for a living, you realize that most people – and I’ve found Hawaiians in particular – don’t just reveal their inner thoughts, feelings or what exactly happened to just anyone. As the journalist behind this film, it was Sam’s job to promise that he’d do his damndest to not misrepresent his subjects and actually live up to that promise or be banished from the North Shore. In hoping for a soul-searching interview with a subject, it also helps if you know that person’s history and backstory. It’s arguable that no one, with the possible exception of Matt Warshaw or Stuart Holmes Coleman, who wrote the book “Eddie Would Go,” could have come into “Hawaiian” with as much knowledge as Sam George. Only someone who has spent years immersed in surfing on film, in print, and in the ebullient Mr. George’s case; in front of anyone he’s standing in a room with, could have pulled this film off. Eddie’s siblings, friends, and colleagues clearly trusted that Sam would be true to Eddie’s story. That’s why Clyde, Myra and Sal Aikau went so deep — not only into Eddie’s story, but the death of their troubled brother Gerald and the strange and sad tale of the marginalization they faced as native Hawaiians growing up in the shadow of American statehood.