Monday, January 07, 2019

Free Solo (2018)

Here's a documentary that kind of does it the old-fashioned way, focusing on a monumental human achievement and doing its best to stay close to the subject but out of the way too. The human achievement is the first free solo climb of Yosemite's El Capitan half-dome wall, by Alex Honnold in 2017—"free solo" meaning without ropes or other climbing equipment, a trend in recent decades among a select few rock climbers, most of them prematurely dead. The camera work is so good in this picture that it's often very hard to look at it. What they're doing is dangerous. Like most great athletes Honnold can be a bit of a robot in interviews—someone here refers to him affectionately at one point as "Mr. Spock"—but he's an interesting character study, introspective, articulate in his way, obviously deeply grounded, and honest to a fault. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi humanize him by including his girlfriend Sanni McCandless and making their relationship part of what he is doing. It's a good impulse and makes it an even better story. But the best part is just seeing it done—how someone goes about walking up to the base of El Capitan and climbing up the vertical face to the top with just hands and feet. It was first done—with ropes—only in 1958, and since then a number of routes have been charted. Honnold spends a lot of time studying the most intricate parts of the climb, meticulously working out the specific movements required for certain passages, and practicing them. Sometimes he slips. We see a lot of people slipping, saved by ropes. There are other setbacks, including injuries. The movie is continually pushing the danger element. But it is fair and saves the best for last. Honnold makes a first attempt in the fall of 2016, which he calls off early. The following June, he finds a day that is very good for him and makes the climb in less than four hours. It is spectacular, and so hard to watch. The cameras are not intrusive—the operators are friends of Honnold by this time and couldn't bear to distract him (one can't even bear to watch during the most treacherous parts). The cameras are not intrusive but they are omnipresent, offering tight and sharp close-ups of fingertips and shoe edges on bare rock as he executes the most difficult portions. Just really awesome stuff, and often hard to watch. It's an achievement in documentary filmmaking too. This is one for a big screen if you can.

No comments:

Post a Comment