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Doc Corner: From the Short List - 'Free Solo'

By Glenn Dunks

Easily queasy viewers beware – Free Solo can be a daunting prospect to watch. And not just for the extraordinary climb that the film is all about, but if even just the poster churns your stomach, it’s probably not for you. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow up to Meru (of which I was less a fan for reasons I honestly don’t even remember – I watch too many movies to remember these things, apparently) charts Alex Honnold, the world’s most famous free solo rock climber, as he sets out to conquer his biggest feat yet: El Capitan, the 3000-foot vertical rock face, a granite monolith that has loomed over Yosemite for millennia.

The why of Alex’s mission remains a tantalizing carrot that dangles in front of the audience through his death-defying stunts. The reasons for doing what he does are spread throughout Free Solo as if like breadcrumbs for the audience to collect, although I suspect they don’t come together to give as full of a portrait as the film may think. Despite Honnold’s attitudes towards life and death, which are fairly lax let’s just say, he remains a fairly mysterious man. His initial abandoning of the El Capitan climb and then upon its completion a year later are the only times we see genuine emotion out of him. Sequences with his girlfriend are often awkward to watch, no less so than when they buy a house together and one can all just hear the directors off camera begging him to say anything of some emotional weight. She at least appears to have developed a coping mechanism to deal with him, but in the 90-minute span of the movie, he remains an often frustrating subject. The closest we get to something tangible is when he receives a brain scan and discovers the traditional function that responds to fear and pleasure simply doesn’t respond like everybody else. Essentially, he’s hardwired this way.

But while Free Solo is about Alex, it’s ultimately not about him as a person, but rather him as an athlete. It’s about achievement. It’s certainly not about his girlfriend, Sammi McCandless, who comes off as awfully ill-treated, and it's not about the sport of free soloing in general, although we meet several key figures who help Alex out in his mission. It’s about watching the preparations that go into this act by scaling the cliff-face with ropes and doing the mathematical sums in his head of where he needs to be at any given time. He experiences injuries and doubts, and Sammi worries that El Capitan may be a bridge, or in this case a rock, too far for her daredevil boyfriend (who can’t even say “I love you”).

The ascent that is the climax of the movie is a thrilling sequence with camerawork that I still can’t quite figure out capturing feats of athleticism and daring that I will probably never be able to comprehend. The climb that he undertakes here is ghoulishly entertaining as we watch slack-jawed and fists clenched around the armrest. But Chai and Chin are smart, focusing on the pressure points that we’ve been hearing about throughout the movie and allowing us moments where the tension is alleviated (one involving a unicorn that offers the film's biggest laugh). It is a sequence as thrilling as anything in a Hollywood movie because it’s real and even if we know the outcome before the opening frames even begin, that doesn’t stop the heart from racing as we watch him step precariously from one ledge to another, as he uses the smallest of crevices as rungs on a ladder, as his hands fumble for a hold, or as he – at one point – has to go back down again in order to continue going up. It’s thrilling stuff.

I got to see Free Solo projected in a real IMAX theatre, and while the film was not filmed in this format, nor has it been formatted to appear as such, the grandeur that this offered really elevated the experience. It also, somewhat unfortunately, had the effect of highlighting the shakiness of the camera in the non-climbing scenes. In some ways these moments were more stomach-churning than the actual climb when seen projected so big. They had tripods – we see them used throughout the climb, so it bothers me that simple scenes filmed in Alex’s trailer or during a school lecture were constantly shaking as if the cameraperson had an itch they couldn’t quite scratch. I did, however, appreciate Chai and Chin incorporating their own internal dilemma about whether their filming could endanger Alex. It’s a neat filmmaker’s touch in a film about an act that literally would never be seen without them. Shame about the Tim McGraw song over the end credits.

Release: Still in limited theatres, and will be getting an exclusive one-week IMAX run from January 11. It will be on home entertainment this March.

Oscar Chances: I think it's extremely strong for a nomination for many reasons, but it could also be Won't You Be My Neighbor's strongest competition for the win. I know a lot of people love that Mr Rogers doc, but anybody who is maybe less enamoured would be more likely to err towards something that throws a bit more technical weight around. It's why (I think) Icarus was able to win last year in favour of, say, Faces Places which was more genteel. Either way, it's great work by National Geographic who last year couldn't get a shortlisting for the buzzy LA 92.

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Reader Comments (2)

I just saw this the other day in the dinkiest movie theater in D.C., and even though it was still extremely compelling I remember thinking several times how much better it would be in IMAX (or at least on a proper-sized movie screen)!

Alex is a fascinating guy, though I sure as hell wouldn't want to be his girlfriend or even a close friend. As for the girlfriend, I did feel sympathy for her but you have to know what you're signing up for with someone like him. Most awkward but least surprising moment was when he basically tells her free soloing is more important to him than she is.

December 28, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

LA 92 was among the fifteen docs shortlisted last year for the Oscars.

December 28, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

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