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1 review, 1 rating

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Free Solo
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by Jay Seaver

"Big-screen adventure and then some."
4 stars

There's a program of adventure sport movies playing a local theater in a week or two - there always seems to be some compilation of movies about people climbing, skiing, surfing, biking, or the like grabbing a screen for a few shows here, if you know where to look - and I'm tempted to catch it not just for the promised thrills but so I have a baseline for what makes movies like "Free Solo" (and the filmmakers' last feature, "Meru") make the jump to the multiplexes. Is it just more grandiose accomplishments, more artistically sophisticated choices by the filmmakers, a better human story, or some combination of them? "Free Solo" certainly belongs on the biggest and best screen one can find for all those reasons - it delivers on the astonishing climax it promises and finds a worthy film in the lead-up.

The promise of the last act is that Alex Honnold, a young alpinist who has devoted his life to his craft, will free-solo the face of El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park - that is, climb the nearly-3,000-foot sheer cliff without ropes or a partner, an achievement nobody has ever achieved, and which few if any have even attempted. It is insanely dangerous, even for one as familiar with the territory as Honnold (he has climbed the cliff in more conventional manner dozens of times), and one sort of has to wonder about the mindset of the person who would make the attempt, especially since Alex has just met a nice girl who seems to be sticking with him more than the many others who have been attracted to the handsome daredevil only to realize that they will likely never eclipse climbing as his first priority.

Though the audience's initial introduction to Honnold highlights that he's a genial fellow with simple needs, there are also plenty of moments that make him look like he's some sort of psychopath, and what makes Free Solo interesting is that it's not a conclusion that the filmmakers are trying to avoid. It's easy and expected in some ways to talk about how being a bit of an odd fellow is the natural result of being driven to do exception things, but filmmakers Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi will let him keep talking until he says something eyebrow-raisingly detached, eventually circling back to how he was brought up or shooting a group of neuroscientists scanning his brain to see what activates his amygdala. There's a strong thread in the film about Alex and his girlfriend Sanni figuring out how their relationship can work, and exploring what it's like to deal with the sort of clear but sometimes diminishing focus of such a guy. It's not something Vasarhelyi & Chin can necessarily drill too deep on without affecting it, but they do manage to present an intriguing ambivalence about the mentality that allows them to get the film's incredible footage.

And while they don't visibly push to get far enough inside Alex's and Sanni's heads to change the way they think, the filmmakers do out of necessity become somewhat more inward-looking and self-conscious than is typical. Co-director Chin and his shooting crew are experienced mountaineers themselves, and particularly well aware that while the camera can change how a subject behaves, that could literally be the difference between life and death here, and it feels important that Chin does occasionally turn the camera around to show himself talking about how they're going to film in order to avoid this danger, while also hinting at a broader discussion that can get hidden underneath cliche - someone actually says "doing it for the right reason, which hints at the audience's complicity in Honnold risking his life, but also suggests that maybe the people making and watching the film give the climb purpose and value beyond his personal drive.

Honnold eventually decides he wants to see the cameras as little as possible, which means that if it's nothing else, <I>Free Solo</I> is something of a cinematographic miracle: Chin and his crew make the last act intimate and full of great, clear shots even though they very deliberately shot from far enough away that the subject can mostly ignore the cameras - we see Chin and his crew working - or, as in the case of Alex's close friend Tommy Caldwell, utterly unable to work out of worry - but almost never in the same frame as Honnold, which both keeps him in the right state of mind and emphasizes to the audience that he's truly doing this on his own. They make amazing lenses today - large chunks of this must be shot from over a kilometer away - and the crew wielding them is fantastic.

Does this translate to more skill in presenting climbing than specialty films? I don't know, but it's impressively put together, doing a good job of educating its audience on how a guy does this along with the eye-popping scenery, canny in how it builds from "difficult" to "incredible" without ever feeling that it is holding back early on, and creating a tingle in the viewer's spine less out of making them wonder whether Alex will get killed than by making them marvel at just how he avoids it (a lesson in storytelling many creating fiction could do with learning). The movie has a genuine wow factor that few other sorts of documentaries can achieve, and it doesn't squander it at all.

It is, more than just about any other film to come out this year, one to see on the biggest and best screen it comes to. Vasarhelyi & Chin are good enough at poking at the climber's psyche and relating a story that it will likely still be a nicely-made documentary on a home- or hand-sized screen, but they absolutely deserve the chance to drop their viewers' jaws while they can.

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originally posted: 11/02/18 10:13:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/10/20 Big Chicken Jaw-dropping. HOLY F*** 5 stars
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Directed by
  E. Chai Vasarhelyi
  Jimmy Chin

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