At the center of Jacob Rosenberg's Waiting for Lightning sits a great absence: the subject itself. Yes, the doc's talking heads discuss nothing but skateboard superstar Danny Way, and the film doesn't lack for archival footage of Way doing his thing, but with the central figure almost never weighing in directly, the film's attempts to portray his story as an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity scarcely registers. Instead we're left with a talented cipher driven to perform death-defying stunts because, well, we're not really sure. The best the film can muster is several subjects surmising that Way's penchant for obsessive shredding is a coping mechanism for his personal difficulties.
These difficulties include the death of his father in prison when Way was just a child and his mother's later substance-abuse problems. The film alternates between a chronological narrative of its subject's life, which takes on little resonance from its human-interest angle and only catches fire briefly when dealing with 1980s SoCal skating culture, and Way's preparations for his 2005 jump over the Great Wall of China. This last feat is presented as the film's culmination, its stunning danger and symbolic potential seemingly meant to endow the feat with massive levels of undefined import. But because Way's colossal leap stands as the climax of the movie's tale of personal redemption, it has to be about something more than simply "gnarliness," to use the terminology employed by many of the doc's subjects. So Way tells us, via news footage, that it's about advancing the sport of skateboarding and another subject lamely weighs in about the jump representing "freedom" in a constricted land, presumably referring to China.
While this last comment is really little more than a tossed-off aside, it speaks to something larger in the film's worldview, something that bears perhaps more than a casual link to another film from the production company, the Bandito Brothers, the rah-rah military actioner Act of Valor. In that movie, the filmmakers cast real Navy SEALs to advance an idealistic vision of the American role in combating the so-called war on terror, thus advocating U.S. imperialism, while making nonsense of international sovereignty. While Waiting for Lightning is clearly involved with civilian matters, there's plenty of the same attitude, the combination of thinly veiled xenophobia (here manifesting itself in the skater's uncomprehending frustration with Chinese officials) and blustery displays of testosterone-fueled bravado. The difference is that, in Act of Valor, this latter element is viewed as inherently valid, the necessary actions needed to save the world. In Waiting for Lightning, the motive is strictly personal fulfillment—no matter how hard the film tries to imbue Way's leap with larger meaning. Thus what we end up celebrating is one man's expensive and dangerous stunt, a maneuver that serves no real purpose to anyone but him and the few thousand people who might look on and think that leaping to one's potential death is somehow gnarly.