Free Solo a Manipulative Thrill

Free Solo (2018)
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
National Geographic Movies, 100 minutes, PG-13

Free Solo tells the tale of how Alex Honnold scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan freestyle. That means he had no ropes, no harness, and no safety net of any sort. For those keeping score, El Capitain rises slightly more than 3,000 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor–most of it vertical. There was zero margin for error; any misstep, stumble, or missed finger grip would have been fatal. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the most recent Academy Awards. I beg to differ.

As I wrote in a different context last year, though Honnold’s achievement was remarkable, it seemed reckless to give a lot of publicity to such a dangerous and foolhardy pursuit in an age in which even a movie such as Dumb and Dumber invites copycat behavior. For that reason alone, I ducked Free Solo when it was in theatrical release. Now that I’ve seen it, though, I have different reasons for questioning the wisdom of handing it an Oscar.

First, though, here are some good things about it. The film crew consisted of experienced mountain climbers such as Tommy Caldwell, Mikey Schaefer, Peter Croft, and co-director Jimmy Chin. They were anchored, but because they know the climber’s craft, they were able to provide angles, vertigo-inducing shots, and perspectives that no super long lens could duplicate. Their task was nothing less than getting close enough to give us a bird’s eye view, yet remain far enough away to avoid distracting Honnold during his 4-hour Spiderman scale of El Capitan’s sheer face. This and Bob Eisenhardt’s judicious film editing create the illusion of a dance between life and death.

Yet it is an illusion. We know from the onset that Honnold made it. It was in all the papers. And did you really think National Geographic was going to slap its name on a mall film in which the hero is shown plunging to his death and lying bloody and broken on the canyon rocks? This means that Free Solo has to build faux drama and this is where things get dicey. First, Honnold is a rather weird guy. He dropped out of college and lived in his van for several years as a semi-vagabond with a teenaged boy’s hygiene and habits. Second, he is so introverted that one wonders how he ever won the affection of his pretty, perky girlfriend Sanni McCandless. The two barely speak, but McCandless comes across as amazingly nonchalant that the mountain might tear her main squeeze apart life and limb. If these and the furrowed brows of Alex’s friends seem contrived, perhaps they are. If you watch carefully, some of the scenes seem more ‘rehearsed’ than genuine.

Or maybe it only seems that way because the soundtrack is both bland and manipulative. Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts are listed as responsible for the film’s music, though I am unsure how much they scored versus how many canned sounds they simply imported. As I have written before, documentaries often feature ‘neutral’ backing music that is seldom interesting in its own right but contains tonal shifts to signify anxiety, fear, inspiration, or relief. If you wonder why, it’s because when an audience already knows the outcome, it must be tricked into suspending belief. We must believe—even for an instant—that Honnold might actually fall. That’s also why we see footage of Honnold falling from the face when he is harnessed. We are supposed to think, “How can he climb El Capitan without a rope when he can’t do it with one?”

I get it that people do all manner of things for an adrenaline rush: roller coasters, bungie jumping, racing cars, parachuting, surfing…. Alex Honnold is certainly a fit young man who pulled off a remarkable feat. He’s also 34-years-old now and continues to free climb. As the film documents, that’s generally not an occupation that takes one to old age. There are certainly plenty of thrilling shots in Free Solo that give the more cautious of us a look at something we’d see no other way. Were it me, though, I’d pay a whole lot more attention to Sanni and admire El Capitan from its base.

I enjoyed Free Solo for its gorgeous photography. But Best Documentary? Nope.

Rob Weir

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