Film Review: Free Solo

My anticipation for Free Solo had been building for a long time, since I first watched a six-minute clip of Alex Honnold climbing El Sendero Luminoso on YouTube, I’ve been waiting for a feature length film of one of these climbs. The art of climbing without a rope is stunning, and I think a feature length film following the formula laid out by this short could be a fantastic experience. It’s one of the most breathtaking six minutes of video I’ve ever watched.

The sense of anticipation and excitement only grew when I heard that Free Solo won the Oscar for best documentary. With Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai, directors of the sublime piece of film Meru, in charge of Free Solo, I was sure this was going to be a groundbreaking documentary. With plans already made to re-watch the film on the following day, I was keen.

The day before going to see the movie, I stumbled across a 1 minute clip of the boulder problem. This clip is riveting. The voice over of Honnold explaining the most technical part of the route in incredible detail invites you into his world. It gives you a glimpse of what it might be like to climb Freerider, without a rope. I was hoping the film (running to 100 minutes) would be around 50% footage somewhat similar to this clip. I wanted to learn about the feat, and become familiar with each of the pitches on the route as Alex climbed.

With such high expectations, maybe it was never going to deliver in the way I was imagining. Unfortunately for me, the film skated over most of the climb, with only some small attention given to the boulder problem, and the early slab pitch. The rest of the climb was skated over using an animated line crawling up a 3D graphic of the Cliff. There were no other clips similar to the boulder problem footage that had got my hopes up. I didn’t feel like I was in Alex’s world.

The film was shot from the perspective of the supporting cast; the film crew and his girlfriend, and the emotional toll the climb was having on them. It’s a good character study, and it gives us an insight into what Alex is like as a person, and the dynamics of a relationship undergoing the strain of one partner’s risky activities. It’s standard fare for climbing films, that the extreme activities they partake in can be an emotional burden on those close to them. However, it felt like Free Solo took this idea to the races, and the emotional toll bore by those around Alex became the focus of the film.

Showing the climb in more detail would have let the audience themselves go through an emotional ride. The detailed exposition of his friend’s emotions made me question the motivation for this editorial choice. Comparing the two films Meru and Free Solo, to a non-climber it’s not immediately clear which project was riskier. With such a strong focus on the negative emotional impacts throughout Free Solo, it points towards the editors having a negative view of the climb. It’s understandable, but slightly hypocritical based on the antics we saw in Meru, where Jimmy Chin and his climbing buddies take on an unclimbed Himalayan peak. Which to an outsider, seemed to be a far from safe endeavor. Two of the crew members came very close to dying (one of the climbers practically has a stroke halfway up a mountain), yet in Meru, the focus remains solidly on the achievement and the technicality involved in the climb.

To be fair to the directors, Redbull and North Face are out there producing lots of very climbing centric content, and maybe it's understandable that they wanted to go in a different direction. There was a lot of missed potential in this project, and I think one of those studios really could have taken advantage of it. The final 10-15 minutes of Free Solo were something like what I was looking for, with too many interludes where the majority of the climb are traced out by an animated dot, mixed with cutaways to one of the photographers who can’t stand to watch. I’d still recommend anyone to go see it, but it’s not the great film that it could have been.

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