by Alex Gehlein ’19
Sometimes what makes a documentary great is not so much the presentation of what the filmmakers have captured, but the thing itself. This can work in reverse as well, where what they might be filming is rather mundane, but proves interesting with the filmmaker’s touch (See Hotel Monterey, Sherman’s March, or Good Hair). Free Solo exists somewhere between these two sides of the genre. The thing they capture is so absurdly interesting that you can’t help but enjoy watching it, but the presentation of the actual climb is a bit lacking. Contrast this with its portrayal of the real life of Alex Honnold, and the personal circumstances surrounding the climb, which exists on that other side of the documentary spectrum. Your interest is maintained throughout because the filmmakers know how to make the more mundane things interesting, and have a subject that you can’t take your eyes off of no matter how it’s presented.
Now I can’t exactly blame them for the way the climbing is captured. Free Solo is a new documentary by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, which follows Alex Honnold, a professional climber, as he attempts to summit the face of El Capitan in Yellowstone, without a rope or harness. The danger in getting to close is that if you distract Alex too much, he could die. A clunky camera in his face could easily pull Alex’s attention off the task at hand and cause him to plummet to his death. So I don’t really subtract any points for how they filmed the climbing.
Alex is a fascinating character. A brain scan during the film reveals that his amygdala doesn’t work in the same way as most people. He doesn’t feel fear like we do, which probably explains the climbing. He is emotionally detached and focused only on free solo climbing, which prompts the question, how does he function normally? That is the first half of the film. We see Alex scouting the summit, doing practice runs and training, all while developing a relationship with his new girlfriend. We see how he functions, grow to like him, and are emotionally invested by the time he makes the climb.
And the climb is fascinating. The way he approaches it is like a dance, practicing choreography for months on end, storing up every little detail of the mountain in his mind before taking a shot at the climb. It’s not really possible to put this section perfectly into words, but it is terrific despite the safety precautions in filming. It’s something you’ll just have to see to believe.
The last forty minutes of the movie are amazing, but they’re made even better when you grow to love Alex through the first hour of the film. His way of seeing things, his energy, his optimism, they’re all infectious, and by the time he’s started the climb you’re rooting for him like Rudy, Rocky, or Randy “The Ram.” What makes it even more impactful is that it’s real.