Early in Waiting for Lightning, skateboarder Greg Hunt utters a surprising truth as he marvels at the giant ramp Danny Way has put together in order to jump the Great Wall of China: "They would never let anyone build something like that here." It's a throwaway remark that's also an incisive comment on both our domestic nanny state and China's — how you say — relaxed regulatory environment.
You might wish for more observations like that in Waiting for Lightning — or at least some serious skating thrills — but the rest is pretty boilerplate doc material. Director Jacob Rosenberg dutifully intercuts scenes of Way's preparation for the Great Wall jump with obligatory flashbacks to his early skateboarding years at Del Mar Skate Ranch, wellspring of such famous boarders as Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk. We're also treated to dramatic re-enactments of key moments from his tumultuous childhood: Way's biological father, Dennis, died under mysterious circumstances in jail, and his mother, Mary, remarried but separated from Way's stepfather and embarked on a series of drug-fueled liaisons when her son was a teenager.
Through skating, Way gained renown and a series of father figures. His yearning for a strong paternal influence is a recurring theme in Waiting for Lightning: After his father's death, Way bonded with stepdad Tim O'Dea, who first taught him to skateboard. At age fourteen, Way turned pro with H-Street, where he came under the wing of Mike Ternasky, a director and photographer who took Way with him when he founded Plan B — allowing the young skater and his cohorts to live a life of unsupervised, Jackass-style mayhem. Ternasky's accidental death would deal another blow to the young Way's need for structure.
But Rosenberg never really connects the dots between the young skater's lack of a steady, fatherly influence — hardly unheard of in modern society — and his apparently pathological need to put himself in harm's way, whether by "dropping in" out of a helicopter or vaulting over one of the true wonders of the world. Way still holds a number of skateboard records (highest "air": 23.5 feet; longest jump: 79 feet), and interviewees equate his obsession with always going bigger and faster to like-minded extreme-sports pioneers such as surfer Laird Hamilton and motocross legend Travis Pastrana. The film's centerpiece is the Great Wall jump, but the filmmakers never find any greater motivation for the stunt other than one comment from Way on a flight to China in 2005: "I'm gonna jump over that." As justification goes, it's not even a "because it's there."
The jump itself is as much a confluence of ad hoc engineering and luck as it is an exercise in hubris. Seriously injuring his ankle and annoying Chinese officials (not hard to do, despite their lack of regulatory zeal), Way even embarks on an unsanctioned "practice run" a day early. He's ultimately successful, of course, and there's no denying the guy's guts. Unfortunately, as the extensive footage of kick flips, fakies and grinders goes from thrilling to routine, we're left waiting for — and wanting — Rosenberg to offer something more substantial than another "big air."