Do not be put off by the fear of extreme highs that you'll see the new documentary Free Solo when it hits the cinemas at the end of the month. I nearly did, and if I skipped it here at the Telluride Film Festival – where it premiered on Friday – I would have missed one of the more intriguing character studies of the year. The film, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (her Meru covered similar terrain), is a fascinating view of Freibergsteiger Alex Honnold, who became the only person at the age of 31 to ever climb El Cordino ̵
If that sounds crazy, congratulations: you have a rational view of life and mortality. Honnold is not – or rather, his version of Rational is very different from ours. Through interviews and intimate access to Honnold's Everyday Life, Free Solo depicts the psychology of a person who appears to be risk-averse, but surprisingly less averse to most people. Honnold is not suicidal; There is no death wish around him like a restless aura. Instead, he drove by his passion of sorrows; His intense dedication to his sport has brought about a kind of radical reorientation. He talks about the immediate danger of death because we could talk about a toe. It's shit, if it happens, but yeah.
Is Alex Honnold of sound mind? Free Solo delves a bit into this, with both a sly mood and serious investigation. On the happier side, we see Honnold doing a brain exam and then a doctor who sounds a bit amused and tells him he has an extremely high stimulus threshold. In essence, what scares us norms triggers a congenial aversion in us, hardly registers after Honnold. He's like a superhero whose superpower is near fearlessness. (Although he often talks about things that are "scary" in the movie, I do not think he really means it – or he experiences the sensation – the way we do it.)
There is also a family inheritance in the game: a distant father, who was perhaps on the autism spectrum, a mother whose absolutism about the achievements has certainly brought some stringent ideas about the success in the head of her son. Free Solo does not explore this story too deeply, but at least it offers a suggestive view of which forces, both nature and caring, could conspire to risk such high stakes.
Beyond The Interesting Character Profile Free Solo also acts as a sort of metakritic of this type of documentary. We see Chin and his crew, most of them friends or at least loving admirers of Honnold, grappling with the difficult realities – and possible trauma – of what they are doing. Chin speculates on what it would feel like to film Honnold on one of his free climbs, and suddenly "he sees himself out of line" – until his almost certain death. These filmmakers, all climbers themselves, express these personal and professional concerns in a way that seems real. They not only struggle with the management of their own well-being, but with the effect their presence on Honnold could have.
Will he go too far and give Chin the cinema moment he's looking for? Is he distracted and thus less fatally footed? These are pertinent, beguiling, perhaps devastating questions, and Free Solo admirably does not elude them. She confronts her own existence in an almost anthropological way.
The film is also gracious in the treatment of Honnold's girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, herself an avid naturalist, understandably in contradiction to Honnold's chosen profession. The way she balances support for her partner while emphasizing her own needs is carefully illustrated. As a dissection – or at least an overview – of a relationship, Free Solo raises tricky questions. Is Honnold a callous monster for doing that with those he loves? Is all this death-defying effort in a sense an act of cruelty? Not quite, argues the film – and shows us. But it does not portray its hero as someone who finds it so easy to be close.
But who cares about all the mushy stuff, right? We are here because of the crazy rock climbing pictures! And boy, create Free Solo that – a dizzying array of Honnold's close-up and long-range shots that permeates various cliff faces, both with complex planning and with occasional frightening improvisation. Using fixed cameras, drones, and portable devices, filmmakers can capture startling visions of what will be the most dangerous sport in the world, a celebration of Honnold's heroics that is also a little scared of them. Watch the movie on as big a screen as possible, but be prepared for at least a few moments of pure dizziness.
I left the theater strengthened and perplexed, in awe of the performance of this charismatic man, but afraid that it will inspire others to try the same. The film is keen on this problem and makes a quick note of it in the end. In truth, no one can stop someone who is so determined to risk everything for personal glory (or whatever it is that really drives Honnold). But perhaps Free Solo & # 39; s detailed, penetrating portrait of her hero will at least present some sort of barrier to entry and tell the eager wannabees that very few people are actually as built as Alex Honnold. And thank God, in a way, for that.