Free Solo (2018)
Dirs: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
At the risk of sounding like I’m making the obvious pun, this documentary is gripping! There’s honestly no better way of describing it succinctly, and I’ll explain why.
This feature-length documentary follows expert rock climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to perform a climb he’s wanted to do for years, El Capitan, but ascending it free solo, without any ropes or equipment.
The film makes very clear the key point, the title and why Alex’s climb is so impressive, he’s doing it free solo, which means he has no ropes, no equipment, simply his bare hands, some grippy shoes, a little bag of chalk and his skill. Nobody has done this climb in that way before. It’s established early on, abundantly clarified and frequently reminded in various ways, that if he were to fall, he would die. There can be no higher personal stakes for a documentary about one man’s endeavour than that.
Inevitably, my mind early on got to wondering about the film-making logistics involved, how were there going to film this climb where the climber himself must be unencumbered? This could very quickly have become a frustrating query that would have stuck in my mind and distracted me from the rest of the film. Thankfully, lots of questions are raised and then almost instantly answered throughout the film and the logistics of filming the climb is raised early on. We see the crew discussing it, literally raising the obvious questions and working through the answers. Crucially the cameramen are professional climbers, also friends, who take the opportunity of Alex preparing for the solo climb to work out how they’re going to film him. At later points, they also raise some less obvious, moral questions of if they even should be filming? How can it be filmed without getting physically in Alex’s way? Or worse, being an obstacle mentally, will they ruin his mindset, distracting him and his crucial focus? What if they end up making a film about a man, their friend, falling to his death? How would they feel if they inadvertently caused it?
Many have died, we get a concise summary of just a few, some of which were friends of Alex. There’s a brief clip of one climber falling, who then opens a parachute and survives. Alex, however, has no parachute, there’s nothing to save him. This then makes it all the more concerning when we see Alex suffer a few incidents. If they happen while he’s doing the solo climb they would be fatal. Some parts of practice climb, even though he’s climbing with a rope made me feel queasy. Many shots are unavoidably vertiginous, though the film doesn’t overuse those angles to the point that they ever lose any of their impact.
Other questions are asked and instantly answered, nearly nothing goes unsaid, even just a brief moment is given to unpack each thought so the film can progress onward, upward, and so can we. There are fascinating issues touched on, such as when Alex gets an MRI brain scan to see if his brain is abnormal (I won’t spoil the result). The film also delves into the more personal side to the story, showing that it goes beyond being a feat of athleticism and extreme sport. Though no hypothesis is made, it raises thoughts of his childhood, how his late father supported his climbing and that he’s lived in a van since his death. Soloing is tactfully suggested as being a result of wanting to climb but not always wanting to be social.
Now Alex has got a girlfriend, yet seemingly he hasn’t completely adapted to that, seems reluctant to put down roots, it doesn’t come naturally to him. Having an emotional connection with someone is presented as almost bad timing, an extra weight he doesn’t need, something that should reasonably make him consider stopping soloing, something others discuss, but not him. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of someone whose thought processes seem far removed from most of us, yet it’s a captivating conversation to be a fly on the wall for, another way in which the film builds interest in every aspect of it’s subject.
I’d heard a few mentions of this film on podcasts and saw that it had started winning lots of awards, most notably the BAFTA. Now that I’ve seen it myself, I know why. It’s excellent, an impressive feat technically, filming rock climbing up close as never seen before, but also able to get duly intimate with the human subject, and nobly attempting to answer the questions raised by anyone attempting a life-threatening feat such as this. There are still some questions that remain unanswered, despite all efforts, no definitive response to how or why Alex does this. These are things I’m not sure he even knows, but I think the audience is given the rare opportunity to be exactly in the same place as him, physically and mentally, in this endeavour.
‘Free Solo’ won the BAFTA for ‘Best Documentary Feature’ and is nominated for the corresponding category at the Academy Awards this coming weekend. Sometimes a film gets nominated solely on the strength of its compelling subject, but thankfully, in this case, the filmmaking is genre-pushing too, taking cameras where they’ve never really been before to fully document the feat being undertaken.