Director-Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Scott’s Review #920
Reviewed July 17, 2019
Free Solo (2018) is a documentary that takes a standard approach style, offering a traditional, yet informative piece about the perils and triumphs of rock climbing. More precisely, termed “free soloing”, a dangerous feat involving the lack of ropes or any safety harnesses, one false misstep can (and has) resulted in death. The film balances a nice humanistic approach of the featured daredevil with his girlfriend and camera crew’s individual perspectives.
Having personally scolded the Oscar Academy (in my own mind anyway) for omitting the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) from the five documentary nominees, a “WTF” moment on nomination day, Free Solo would not be my choice as the winner, with RBG getting the honor from the choices provided. RBG is the more timelier and more important of the bunch, given the current state of United States political affairs, but nonetheless Free Solo was crowned the champion.
The likable young man at the forefront of the feature is Alex Honnold, a modest athlete from the west coast, United States, in his early twenties. He has a low-key, almost morose personality and is his own person, shunning organized holidays like Halloween because he “doesn’t want someone else telling him when to have fun”. He is thoughtful and introspective and even a bit odd having sought climbing at a young age and never looking back.
Apparent is how he is not necessarily seeking the fame and fortune but has nonetheless become respected in his chosen profession, explaining that it is more a calling than any attempt to show off or boast of his achievements. As he admits to always wanting to climb the dangerously steep and world-famous rock, the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope, he is also concerned about the pressure of performing for camera crews and the responsibility that entails. The documentary stresses this point as Alex bails from the climb on his first attempt.
Throughout the documentary, the film-makers choose to focus on tidbits of story around his loved ones, specifically his girlfriend and mother, offering their perspectives of his dangerous activities. This is a nice added touch and gives heart and layers to the story making it more humanistic than simply watching an unknown person rock climb for an hour and a half. The audience gets to know Alex throughout the piece therefore making us care more about the peril he goes through as he attempts to triumph.
The production is superlative and quite engaging especially throughout the climbing sequences. Vast shots of the amazing views from the giant rock are plentiful and astounding making the viewer feel as if he or she is also climbing the treacherous monument but breathing a sigh of relief when realizing the safety of a sofa or chair is the preferred option. Seriously though, the camera work is a huge appeal of Free Solo and undoubtedly the primary reason it won the Oscar statuette.
The negatives to Free Solo are only slight and perhaps due to my own lack of appeal of rock climbing. During the documentary I kept asking myself why on earth Alex would attempt to achieve the feat and what possible purpose it would serve. From that angle, my attention tended to wander from time to time so the people with passion for adventurous experiences would be the target audience.
Secondly, there was nary a doubt in my mind that the final moments would result in Alex successfully reaching the pinnacle of his career safely despite the concerns of the crew that he could fall to his death at any moment. Sensible reasoning assured me the project would not have been released if tragedy had occurred.
Free Solo (2018) offers a solid and conventional documentary with enough outdoor sequences amid the standard interviews to satisfy all. The finale, while predictable in showing Alex’s successful climb to Mount, is photographed exceptionally well and professional in spirit. The documentary suffers from some predictability issues and a lack of any real cliffhanger (pun intended) but feels fresh and celebrates the human spirit in a big way.