TIFF 2018: Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Documentary 'Free Solo'
by Alex Billington
September 12, 2018
There's a quote in this film that sums up everything about how mind-blowing this feat is. "People who know a little bit about climbing, they're like, 'oh he's totally safe.' And then people who really know exactly what he's doing, are freaked out." Free Solo is the exhilarating new documentary film made by Jimmy Chin & E. Chai Vasarhelyi, the same team that made the mountain climbing doc Meru a few years ago. This time they profile an American climber named Alex Honnold, who was the first person ever to free solo climb El Capitan. Meaning he did not use any ropes or any safety gear, he just went up the rock face entirely on his own. If he made any mistake while climbing, he would be dead. But he didn't make any mistakes, he pulled it off. Iit's beyond incredible, a legendary feat in climbing history, which they capture on camera in this doc.
There have been a number of great climbing / mountain documentaries in the past few years, and I've seen every single one of them (because I love this stuff and I've been climbing myself). Most of the time, they're designed for a "general audience" to enjoy, without getting too technical or going overboard on the intense climbing geek stuff. After making Meru, Jimmy and Chai have found the sweet spot between appealing to a wider audience and showing us a bit of the technical side. They don't discuss the gear or technique, but they do profile Alex and give us a closer look at his exact route up El Cap (he chose the "Freeblast" route). And of course, they also try to get into Alex's mind, and ask how/why someone would do something this crazy and what it takes for him to be able to do this. Hint: the part of his brain that usually feels fear isn't that active.
Part of what makes Free Solo such an exceptional documentary is in the massive amount of technique and skill involved in placing the cameras and camera crew. Jimmy Chin is a climber himself, and there's a bit of time spent with him discussing how to get the shots and how to place the cameras without distracting Alex. Similar to the documentaries made by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral) there's a fascinating side to this where the filmmakers show themselves in the film because the camera placement is just as vital, and letting the audience in on that is important. The shots of Alex climbing are jaw dropping, and they have to know where to put the camera to make it look as death-defying as it truly is. There's so much talent involved in being up on the rock wall, hanging off of ropes, shooting the climber as there is in making the climb itself.
The result of all this hard work is a visceral, edge-of-your-seat, mind-blowing cinematic experience. It's the kind of documentary that evokes an immediate physical reaction to what you're seeing. The woman sitting next to me at my screening had her hands over her face half the time, she jumped up every time someone fell, and she was squirming constantly during the final climb scenes. She couldn't help it. Your palms will be sweaty, your knuckles will be white from grabbing hold of the chair or whatever is nearby, there's no doubt about it. And yet all we're doing is just sitting on the ground watching this guy hang off the side of a rock. It's a mesmerizing (and honestly, very inspiring) experience and they're getting better and better every time they make one of these documentaries. I love watching them, they're breathtaking and crazy awe-inspiring.
Of course, to captivate audiences for an entire 97 minutes, they need to give us a few other aspects to the story than just the climb itself. One of my least favorite parts of the film is when they take Alex to have an MRI scan, so we can try to understand how his brain works to answer that question of why someone would be crazy enough to do this. It's a bit cheesy and they don't explore his mindset enough, only going through the motions to appease the most basic of inquires. Additionally, Alex meets a woman named Sanni, who becomes his girlfriend and becomes a major part of the film - talking with him about their life together and survival and love. It seems they wanted to include her prominently, but didn't want to drift too far into their life together. However, their story is very important and brings even more of an emotional depth to the film.
Alex's TIFF 2018 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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