Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi sure know how to craft a documentary about mountain climbing. Each of the artists has built strong careers of their own. Vasarhelyi first brought a documentary to TIFF in 2003 and worked with Mike Nichols on “Closer” in 2004. Chin became a world-class climber and photographer, shooting in extremely dangerous locations around the world. Together, the married couple released a thrilling documentary, “Meru,” in 2015, making the Oscar shortlist that year. Their next feature, “Free Solo” continues their exploration of the climbing world as Alex Honnold attempts to climb El Capitan. Their new film ratchets up the tension and anxiety, crafting an even more impressive feature than their debut collaboration.
The idea of free soloing, where mountain and rock climbers choose not to use ropes, feels dangerous at your local gym. That is not the kind of free soloing that Honnold enjoys. Instead, he looked to one of the peaks of the climbing world and became laser focused in the process. The beauty of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park cannot be underappreciated. The granite formation rises 7569 feet into the sky, a monolith of natural wonder. It is no wonder that Honnold’s monomania attracted him to El Capitan. Yet his determination and drive put his life on the line.
“Free Solo” begins as a film focused on drive and execution. In many ways, it draws heavy inspiration from previous documentaries “King of Kong” and “Man on Wire” as someone devotes their life to a singular pursuit. Yet Honnold’s demeanor and general disconnected nature from the world makes him very interesting as the subject of the documentary. Honnold puts his life on the line anytime he climbs without a rope. Yet to Honnold, his death would be borderline meaningless. He doesn’t believe people care about him and thinks they would move on without much difficulty. The portrait that Chin and Vasarhelyi bring to the screen will draw in audiences without question.
What separates “Free Solo” from similar documentaries comes from Chin and Vasarhelyi’s direction. Honnold evolves over the course of the film. First, we see him as the ultimate loner, living in a van away from the world. Eventually, his relationship with his girlfriend evolves, literally and figuratively grounding him in a way he has never known. Yet he continues to climb, sometimes brazenly pushing her away in his pursuit of greatness. His drive consumes him, creating moments of true tenderness in his own way.
Chin and Vasarhelyi also lay out the stakes in a way that makes you frightened for Honnold. While he may believe that he will not fall, you can read the fear on his friends’ faces. Experienced men and women who climb show up throughout the film, all of whom try to discourage him. We run through a list of climbers who have died, and even see footage of one free solo climber fall for hundreds of feet. It is harrowing to watch the footage, and will never let you take a climbing rope for granted.
Chin, who also functions as one of the film’s DPs, brings home stunning visuals. Through body cams and using professional climbers as his film crew, Chin brings an intimacy to the act of climbing. Yet with that intimacy comes real moments of fear. As I watched this movie, it felt as if I experienced vertigo as I looked past Honnold’s shoulders. If the stakes weren’t clear before, they become crystal clear.
Just as important to the film’s success is the amazing sound work. The mics on Honnold’s body allow you to hear the smallest details in the climb, and the feature takes advantage of that. Mixed by frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Tom Fleishman, the sound complements the visuals to make you feel like you are on the mountain with him. Marco Beltrami, a two-time Oscar nominee, scores the film with a soaring piece that further puts a stamp on the aural experience.
Last but not least, editor Bob Eisenhardt worked with Chin and Vasarhelyi to craft an anxiety driven film. Just as important as Honnold’s success are his failures. We watch him fall dozens of times while attached to a rope. The speed and careful precision are painstakingly brought to life. Shots of his chalked hands are quickly inserted into several scenes as he navigates the mountain. The anxiety that builds here takes your breath away. Few films bring so much tension into each moment and flow so perfectly. Sadly they take a few minutes too long in a transitional moment, but that does not detract from the overall editing job that keeps you laser-focused on Honnold.
“Free Solo” enters a year that seems packed with amazing documentaries. Yet it deserves every bit of praise it gets in the coming weeks. This picture will make you stand up and cheer, making you feel every bit of the emotion. The story will grip you, Honnold will fascinate, and Chin and Vasarhelyi establish themselves as two of the premier documentarians in this field. “Free Solo” is not just one of the best documentaries of the year, it’s one of the best films of 2018.