Posted Wednesday 25th of September 2019
Free Solo (2018)
Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Stars: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin
Screened: 17th September, 2019
Free Solo achieves that to which all great documentaries aspire; providing a window into a world, a situation, a person or a place that we don’t normally have access to. With the modern technology of drone cameras, the film also provides this with the lightest possible touch. Whether observing Alex in his interaction with his girlfriend, his friends or colleagues, or following the climber as he ascends the mountain with only his fingertips and a thin layer of chalk between life and death, you are there but you never feel that you are interfering.
Free Solo follows climber Alex Honnold as he prepares for the most dangerous climb in the world: a vertiginous ascent up the vertical, cliff-like, face of El Capitan in the stunningly beautiful Yosemite National Park. It then takes you, with Alex, up that sheer wall of rock. The views are stunning, but so is situation. You are watching a man who, for nearly three hours, is constantly just a few millimetres from certain death. Alex appears calm but, with the camera panning round to reveal the vertiginous drops, you, the viewer remain, gripped by the existential drama of the situation. You can’t help but asking question like: what if he lost his nerve? With no possibility of rescue, you can’t help but imagine that long long way down to the valley floor.
But although we were gripped by the fear of that moment, was Alex? This was the puzzle at the heart of the film. Why did he do it? Did he feel fear? My impression was that the huge amount of prep and meticulous practice for the climb was at least in part to bring his mind into an automaton-like state that allowed him to spider his way across the cliff face without fear. On a ledge he even walked past some guy dressed in a rabbit suit and didn’t even seem to notice. Was Alex man or robot when performing this feat? It wasn’t clear.
But the film also honestly addressed the position of the filmmakers, bringing us into their deliberation ‘about the ethics of doing this’. As Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed the film with her husband, the climber and mountaineer Jimmy Chin, put it. ‘Could we live with ourselves if we enabled [Alex’s death]? It came down to the film itself being about a life well-lived. Alex has made a very conscious choice to do what he loves.’ The film convinced you that, at the end of the day, Alex was going to do that climb, with or without the cameras. The cameras were there to witness. They were not part of the action.
But the 33-year-old Alex himself was also endlessly fascinating. Tall, gangly, long-limbed, lean and muscular, he was the real spider-man of the movies. Whether meticulously checking his kit, chatting to his girlfriend, filmmakers or fellow climbers, Alex’s eerie calmness was a real-life personification of the cool fatalism that Kurosawa brought to his samurai warriors or Sergio Leone captured in his western gangsters. He was always the centre of attention but without wanting or needing that attention. Did anyone see him at the Oscars? He was easy to miss! When the filmmakers arrived on the stage to collect their award, Alex was always in the background. As the speeches were made, everyone was thanked, except the man who put his life on the line. Did he care? Probably not. The film convinced me that Alex’s mind would always be elsewhere, on a cliff-face or planning his next climb. Alex was the star of the film but that space was a curious kind of emptiness.