I continued my mission of catching up with the best movies I missed from 2018 last night by watching the winner of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Free Solo.
Free Solo is a film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi both of whom are in the movie as well being the credited directors. The subject of the documentary is Alex Honnold, a famed rock climber, and his quest to ‘free solo’ El Capitan, the three thousand feet tall rock wall in California’s Yosemite National Park.
‘Free soloing’ is the practice in which a climber scales a wall with no support from any ropes, harnesses, nets, other climbers or anything else besides their own strength and will... and maybe a little chalk for the fingers.
El Cap has never been free solo’d before and Alex is determined to be the first man to do it.
The most striking thing to me about this documentary is the ridiculously stunning cinematography used. The crew for the film was incredibly small, they joke that there was only eleven people involved. I’m sure how accurate that is, but it wouldn’t surprise me. While Alex Honnold is the focus of the film every camera person, and most of the rest of the crew, are all extremely talented and skilled climbers in their own right. Without that there would have been no way to capture the footage they were able to in order to make the movie.
Throughout the first half or so we watch Alex training both mentally and physically for the day he attempts his climb. Throughout this process he is using safety and support gear and the crew are often climbing with him and filming. For the final assent though, when he is prepared and (spoiler alert!) makes the climb, the crew knew that their presence on the wall would only serve as an unnecessary distraction so they used previous climbs to scout the best locations for cameras and set them up to be operated remotely from both the ground and summit. At particularly difficult portions they even went out of their way to make sure the equipment wouldn’t even be in Alex’s view.
Hearing the interviews with these camera operators when they are coming to terms with the fact that they may very well be watching and helpless to do anything when their friend plummets to his death is harrowing and fascinating.
Alex Honnold is a fascinating dude in his own right. It isn’t bought up in the movie and I’m quite likely wrong, but he seemed to me to be so focused on one thing yet emotionally and mentally detached from much of the rest of the world that he seemed almost as though he was on the spectrum.
We do find out when they delve into his family history that while never diagnosed when he was alive, Alex’s father did likely suffer from Aspergers, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it passed on genetically.
The film covers a few years of Alex’s life and quite early on we’re introduced to his girlfriend. She’s supportive of his climbing and cares deeply about him, but Alex comes across as very cold, in affectionate and detached though much of their time together. He clearly likes having her around, staying in the Mercedes van that he lives in, but he’s very open with the fact that he struggles to show emotion and would always choose climbing over everything and everyone else.
He gets frustrated with her when he starts picking up injuries while climbing with her from making stupid mistakes he never used to make. She’s extremely patient with him though and slowly but surely you do see him become warmer.
The days before his big climb she leaves so as not to be a distraction.
Alex has one failed attempt in which he bails early into the climb and when he does finally make the assent it is on a morning when he has not told anyone he’s definitely going, he just quietly hikes to the base and starts. The crew had to be ready each morning to start rolling in case that day was the day.
Watching the assent itself is one of the most tense and nerve wracking things I’ve ever watched. I knew the outcome, but I found myself holding my breath on numerous occasions as over the course of the documentary you’ve got to know the route up El Capitan and where the trouble spots are. Whenever he is at one of these points and we are treated to some of the most stunning visuals ever you can’t help but be sat on the edge of your seat.
Free Solo is such a deserving Best Documentary Feature winner and I encourage everyone to check it out. Alex Honnold may be a god damned lunatic for what he does, but you cannot help but be impressed.