Free Solo review: A compelling fly-on-the-mountain account of man's unquenchable thirst to ascend
The Academy Award-winning documentary on free solo climber Alex Honnod is as much about his lonely journey as it is about the collaborative process of filmmaking.
The most ironic aspect of National Geographic's Academy Award-winning documentary, Free Solo, is that it is not really solo. In fact, the constant challenge in the mind of the the subject is to 'free' himself of the fact that he is not going 'solo'.
Free Solo chronicles almost two years in the life of Alex Honnold, who achieved the superhuman feat of climbing El Capitan, a gigantic vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park in the US. However, unlike boulder climbing, Honnold free soloed his way to the top, which implies he achieved the feat without the aid of a rope, harness or any protective device.
In the first few minutes of the documentary, Honnold hints that his introverted nature was the leading factor in him turning to free solo at a very young age. His mother reveals later that there was minimal familial bonding at home, which could have been another factor, though Alex claimed that his late father would be proud of his achievement, since he always encouraged him to pursue sports, particularly climbing.
How does then the omnipresence of a film crew not rust the steely resolve of a lone climber? His inability to trust other people also reflects in a scene where he tells a class of university students that his dating life is null since he technically lives "in a van" and is travelling most of the time. A few minutes later though, a montage of moments spent with his new girlfriend Sani McCandles is shown. "It's great to have a girlfriend in a van. She's nice and small, and fits anywhere easily," he says. But an unfortunate accident caused by her while climbing (with rope and harness) with him results in him confessing that his instinctive reaction was to dump her.
"But will it make your life any better," she retorts, which makes him reconsider his decision. Their relationship evolves over a period of time and leads to them moving into a house. That only proves that though he would rather climb a mountain than indulge in socialising, he does surmount the challenge of opening up to others over the years. He confesses before a class of university students that a few years ago, he would not be able to even talk in front of a small group of students. Clearly, the dearth of social skills that led him to his passion of free soloing got diluted once he aced the tallest of mountains. If he could conquer those mammoth hurdles, conquering his reserved nature would have felt rather trivial. In fact, free solo could only be just a means to overcome the social awkwardness, the possible final goal.
Thus, it is not entirely impossible to believe that he could free himself of the fact that he is not solo. But as he claims later in the documentary that his unrelenting will to conquer what he abandoned primarily stems from his "warrior spirit". He has always been conditioned to not turn his back towards challenges, however insurmountable they seem. Overcoming his shyness could have also been an outcome of that warrior spirit. His primary goal in life is performance and not happiness, unlike his girlfriend. But the fact that he got little attention from people around him in childhood could also result in him free soloing to seek validation, more his than that of society.
In that case, why would he care to have his journey documented? Since he does not believe in carrying the baggage of proving his worth to the world, why risk his life around a film crew that could easily end up deterring him from his path, leading to fatal consequences. Probably the idea of gaining immunity from the distraction that the crew could possess was also just another challenge, just another mountain, that he wishes to win over. More than the physical constraint, tackling the psychological temptation to tell his story to the world was a graver task that he probably intended to sign up for.
These are some of the questions that Free Solo poses while offering both a fly-on-the-mountain account of Alex's ascent and the mind map of what shapes a determined free solo climber. While documentary films offer little scope for willing suspension of disbelief, the makers completely shatter the glass wall when they, particularly director Jimmy Chin, are seen talking to the camera about their growing friendship with Alex and the difficulty of chronicling his ascent without coming into his eye of sight.
These two factors — lack of objectivity and breaking of the fourth wall — could have easily derailed the audience's investment in the film. But directors Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi choose this narrative device consciously to establish that they had to be Alex's friends in order to gain the trust of a man of a few words. They spelled out their filmmaking challenges rather transparently because Free Solo is as much a documentary on climbing as it is on filmmaking. The audience is as aware of the presence of cameras as Alex. And yet both remain deeply invested in their respective roles, only because of the heart the makers infuse the film with.
Some bits in the middle portion of the documentary do feel staged or are what can be called 'injections' into the narrative. The most glaring of them all is a closed-door conversation between Alex and his girlfriend about his priorities as a boyfriend. Another minor quibble is that Alex's journey could have been lonelier, in order to tap into the spirit of free soloing, but that goes out of the window since the makers choose to focus on the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the fact that every man, however reserved he may be, is a product of the people that have been around him at the different stages of life.
While the lens could have been different, there are no stones left unturned in terms of technique. Chin's cinematography is breathtaking, Bob Eisenhardt's editing is exhilarating and Marco Beltrami's background score is compelling, particularly in the climactic climb sequence. Their death-defying determination to tell the story of Alex Honnold only adds to the force behind man's will to explore. In this case, the exploration is not that of an uncharted physical territory but of his own optimum potential.
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