Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Movie Review: Free Solo

Free Solo **** / *****
Directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizbaeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
 
Free Solo is a documentary about Alex Honnold who spends most of his time obsessing over, and then doing, something that most of us would think is utterly insane – that is rock climbing “free solo” – which means by himself, with no ropes. When he’s on the side of these walls, it’s just him – and he climbs these walls knowing that all it would take is one wrong move, and he’ll plummet to his death. We are told that most rock climbers don’t do this – and almost all of the ones who have made free soloing a major part of their rock climbing careers have in fact died doing it. But when the filmmakers ask Alex why he does it, he doesn’t really have an answer that will satisfy most viewers – or at least, one that will make sense to most. That is precisely what separates him from the rest of the us.
 
His latest, and greatest, obsession is free soloing El Captain in Yosemite National Park – which is essentially a huge wall (some 3600 feet), which presents challenges to even the most experienced rock climbers, even if they are going up with people and ropes. Alex isn’t stupid about this – he knows the risk – and he prepares, obsessively, for a long time in order to do this. He knows every detail of his route up, knows every problem area, knows precisely what he has to do at every step along the way in order to do it. And, yes, he knows it will be very hard – because he’s done it with ropes so many times, and there are certain spots, which he calls pitches, where he has fallen many, many times. But to him, someone is going to free solo El Captain at some point – and he wants it to be him.
 
The filmmakers, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, spend a lot of time with Alex as he prepares. He has become famous in the world of climbing, written some books about it, and made some money – “like the amount of a moderately successful dentist” he tells a classroom full of high school kids who ask him. Still, when the movie opens, he lives in a van. He could afford a house, but he travels so much that the van just makes more sense. He talks about his dating life – or lack thereof – and you understand why he is single. Basically, he says, he has never met a woman he would chose over a climb. During the course of the movie, he starts dating Sanni McCandless, and maybe that will change. Still, he also injures himself twice after meeting with her, and starts to think that perhaps she’s throwing him off his game. A more serious concern for him in that regard is the cameras that the filmmakers want to have covering the El Captain when he makes the climb. Will they be distracting? Will having them there make what he is attempting less meaningful? It’s always been just about him and the mountain before – will doing it for cameras be less pure somehow?
 
The movie is involving and entertaining for the majority of its runtime. What is the documentary form best at other than giving us insight and access to people who are not like the rest of us – who think and behave differently, in ways that a more traditional dramatic movie usually ends up reducing to clich√© and inspirational? The last 20 minutes of the documentary are edge of your seat, heart in your throat thrilling – this is when the climb itself is documented, and because the filmmakers have done such a good job of allowing Alex to explain all the problem areas on the mountain, it’s even more thrilling watching it unfold. Yes, you feel that he is going to make it – if he were to plummet to his death, the documentary would either not have been made at all, or else would have had a very different feel to it leading up these moments, but still, you don’t think like that in the moment.  As a feat of filmmaking, Free Solo is remarkable – as it captures everything about this remarkable climb you would want it to. But it’s more than just a film about this achievement – it really does show the human side of it as well, which serves to up the tension to even greater degrees.

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