“Free Solo” (2018)
Running Time: 96 minutes
Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Featuring: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin and Tommy Caldwell
Alex Honnold:“My friends are like, Oh, that’d be terrible, but if I kill myself in an accident, they’ll be like, Oh, that was too bad, but like life goes on, you know, like they’ll be fine. I mean, and I’ve had this problem with girls a lot, you know. They’re like, Oh, I really care about you, I’m like, No you don’t. Like if I perish, like, it doesn’t matter, like you’ll find somebody else, like, that’s not, that’s not that big a deal.”
Released this month on DVD is this years Oscar winning documentary feature “Free Solo” (2018) which is based around rope and harness free mountain climbing, that is climbing mountains and cliff faces with no safety net, one slip or mistake and the climber plunges to their death. This is a documentary that has been produced by National Geographic and if there was every a movie that fitted with them it is this one, it contains authentic, visceral and real footage of mountain climbing captured up close and personal on many famous mountains and cliff faces in the US which makes this movie all the more impressive. “Free Solo” has one aim which is made clear pretty much from the outset, that is to follow Alex Honnold as he attempts to become the first person to ever free solo climb El Capitan, a treacherous cliff face even when using ropes which we witness throughout this film.
As far as documentaries go this is a very good example of a subject based one in that it not only explores what solo climbing is, how dangerous it can be as well as the existential nature of what it means to climbers and those around them but it also offers an insight into one of its stars, that being the seemingly spartan Alex Honnold. While the actual act of free climbing is captivating and dangerous it is the man who is explored onscreen that really makes this documentary and captures the imagination as he is not only a unique looking man but he offers real insight into the act as well as himself, so much so that it is easy to see why people are drawn to him, assist him and ultimately care for him in an act that is extremely precarious and obviously life threatening.
The past two years or so has been an excellent year for documentaries not only on streaming or DVD but also in cinemas, which is a trend that goes against what many people may have expected. However I find this to be exactly what should be expected especially with the concentration of so-called ‘fake news’ that now exists on the internet, coupled with what has been coming from the White House under the Trump Presidency. In fact there was a thought that cinematic documentaries might be a thing of the past especially with the success as well as saturation of Disney-fied blockbusters invading multiplexes, in fact audiences have been flocking to cinemas to seek out stories about real people making real differences in times and places where many others have been marginalised and made powerless by the people in charge in their respective times. Some of the great, as well as critically received, not forgetting making money documentaires at the box office are: “Wont you be my neighbour?” (2018), “Three Identical Strangers” (2018), “Jane” (2018), “RBG” (2018), and my personal favourite “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017) with so many more. What this says about audiences is that they will seek out true stories told in the relative first person that are not only inspiring but are direct counter programming to the politics of the day as well as the lies that are being produced by a President who is not only artificial but hate fuelled. My belief as a fan of documentaries is that this genre will only gain in popularity, with the coming years being a boon as well as revealing the importance of truth in the media as well as the importance of researching decisions made by the electorate. It is no surprise that the rise in fake news, Donald Trump, racism and may other hate fuelled elements has been answered by artists creating documentaries that prove there can be positive outcomes when people choose to buck the system as well as believing in others, differences, freedom and most of all, discussion.
The strength to this documentary is that it is not only a true story but it follow a very traditional narrative arc that is also present in narrative film in that we are introduced to the hero/protagonist of the story, we explore his back story and then we are shown both visually as well as inferred two antagonists, firstly the seemingly unconquerable rock face, El Capitan and then the hero’s own psyche and personality which seems on the surface every bit as impenetrable as the rocky giant. What is wonderful about this documentary, which it has in common with other documentaries, is the access to the not only the Alex, but also the way the camera crew works to film him climbing from as many different angles as possible. In fact this access to Alex climbing El Capitan is what makes the entire final act as gripping as it is, at times as an audience member you almost feel, viscerally, what it is like to attempt what we are witnessing as well as the extreme danger involved. This entire final act is juxtaposed with most of the first two thirds of the film as we listen to not only Alex, but his friends and family about what they think makes him tick as well as why he does what he does, normally filmed in closed quarters or in mid shot so that when we see Alex climbing in the open it is like a revelation.
The other aspect “Free Solo” handles well is the background to the free climbing that we see throughout, what it is, where it is carried out and why climbers attempt it at all. The directors also go to painful, sometimes shocking lengths to point out the dangers involved as well as some of the high profile deaths that have occurred in attempting this dangerous activity. In fact like the process of climbing this entire documentary is a balancing act, knowing when to show climbing against when to have the ‘talking heads’ explaining what is going on and not to make it too maudlin, especially with the air of doom that at times hangs over Alex in a way that makes an audience feel the Grim Reaper may be sitting on his shoulder. Importantly we are also invited into Alex’s head as he openly discusses with confidantes why he is doing what he is doing, which at times becomes an existential crisis for him, why climb El Capitan, should it even be filmed and what happens afterwards? This is expertly conveyed and it is only because of the omnipresent camera that we are able to witness this, Alex at one point attempts to have what seems like a private conversation with a fellow climber but we see him catch himself as he realises that is not possible, which is telling in and of itself.
This is a very personal story and while at times it could be considered to be gloomy and self-centred we also witness the human side of Alex (as well as his girlfriend) and what makes him driven like so many elite sportspeople who are focused on one goal or element of their life, in Alex’s case this is climbing. We witness conversations with him and his girlfriend about how important climbing is to him as well as what he would sacrifice to be able to do it, the answer is not what she wants to hear. Alex takes what he does very seriously and it has given him a living, however the people around him take it just as seriously, you can hear in their voices that they would not only be heartbroken if he did die but that they may shoulder some of the blame themselves.