Author: Joel Dull
All photos courtesy of National Geographic
Imagine standing at the base of El Capitan an approximately 3000-foot wall that has been the place of death for many expert climbers and thinking to yourself, “I want to climb this without a rope.” Alex Honnold had been tossing this idea around in his head for several years until he completed “what may be the greatest feat of pure rock climbing in the history of the sport” (Synnott, 2017). I have been sitting on this piece for a few weeks because I wanted to be sure that my reaction to the film Free Solo—which documents Honnold’s historic achievement—was not purely because it was the most recent film I had seen, but in this period of time, my opinion has not changed. Free Solo is one of the greatest pieces of cinematography ever created; while this is my subjective opinion, I have concrete reasons why.
Documentaries are wonderful because they highlight true events in a cinematic way. Free Solo takes it one step further and creates the feeling of a scripted story from real time events. Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi has made it clear in a number of interviews that she would not have been interested in making this film if Alex Honnold was a daredevil like most outsiders perceive him as. If Honnold had a death wish, there wouldn’t be a movie to make. In a video done by Vanity Fair titled “How They Filmed the First El Capitan Climb with No Rope in Free Solo,” Vasarhelyi explained that she and her husband/co-director were more interested in Honnold as a character than his specific climb of El Capitan. The vast majority of the movie is about Honnold’s life and training leading up to the climb rather than the climb itself. Of course, the climax of the film was the climb, and this is also were the majority of the phenomenal camera work is done, but the beginning arc of the film is equally tremendous and serves to better the experience of watching the climb. Vasarhelyi makes the audience care for Alex in the same way an author would for a fictional protagonist. We learn about his childhood and how being social was not something that came easy to him, but he is not simply made out to be a lovable oaf, he is far more complex and by no means an oaf. Alex and his mother frame both frame him as a sort of outsider, yet through the film, Alex becomes incredibly personable and he creates a genuine relationship with the audience. The film spends a lot of time depicting his relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. Alex’s relationship with Sanni is perfectly captured in all of its complexity. The difficulty of being in a relationship with a person who’s muse could get them killed at any moment is highlighted throughout the film. There’s one scene in particular where Sanni asks Alex if his feelings for her would ever change his desire to free solo. Simply put, his answer was no. The interviews with Sanni reveal her frustration (that Alex will not allow attachment to change his lifestyle), but they also show her love for him and her desire to see him be happy, and free soloing is what makes him happy. The depth of their relationship is hard to comprehend for anyone that does not have experience with a relationship where the other’s partner could die any day of the week because they are doing what they love, and the film guides the audience through this by having Alex’s friends give their own interpretations. The presentation of Alex’s personal life makes it all the more gut wrenching to watch him ascend the wall, despite the fact that we know he makes it out alive.
This brings me to the climb itself, which is what makes the film so spectacular—not only for the visuals but for the sheer psychological and strategic planning that was required to capture such a moment. Vasarhelyi and Chin made a short film for the New York Times called What if He Falls? which addresses the ethics of making a movie about a friend that could gruesomely die with the slightest of missteps. Everything from the construction of the team to the placement of the cameramen and remote cameras had to be exactly perfect. I said earlier that it feels like the story of the documentary was told so exquisitely that it feels like it could have been scripted, and the same is true for the camera work. The scenes were shot so precisely that they feel choreographed. And it had to be that way, without such a care for how they captured each moment, they ran the risk of adding to Alex’s fear. The fear for Alex Honnold did not come from dying, but from dying in front of his friends who would have to witness his death. Of course the most amazing part of it all is Honnold’s completion of the climb, but the fact that the film crew was able to capture such intimate moments of the climb without getting in his way or adding to Honnold’s difficult task of controlling his nerves is remarkable, not to mention the technical camera work they were doing while also performing a fair amount of technical climbing themselves. The number of obstacles that piled on top of each other for this film should have made it impossible to capture in such a beautiful and precise way. In the Vanity Fair video Jimmy Chin said that, “if you are to climb Freerider [the specific route Honnold took], what we call ‘clean’—which is without falling—that would be a lifetime achievement.” If Honnold’s assent of El Capitan was done with a rope it would have been “a life time achievement,” but he did it without one, and all of it was captured with varying camera angles and shot types to create a truly cinematic experience. Free Solo not only captured one of the greatest individual achievements of any one person, but it told a story in a way that many pieces of fiction aren’t able to attain, and that is something truly spectacular.
JOEL DULL | Still freaking out every time I think about this doc | KXSU Arts Reporter