Jan 22, 2019

FREE SOLO - The Movie

Today the Oscar nominations were announced and I was thrilled when I heard that the National Geographic Documentary FREE SOLO got a nomination for best documentary.  

I first heard about this movie last year, via an article about team of film makers E Chai and Jimmy Chin, I think they're married.  I didn't  know much about them at the time and the article included information on their movie that was just getting released, FREE SOLO. 

The documentary is the story of Alex Honnold, 31,  as he prepares over a 2 year period to climb El Capitan free of any safety ropes or harnesses.  On June 3rd, 2017, the accomplished rock climber, successfully scaled the 3000 foot El  Capitan granite wall in Yosemite National Park.  Basically it was Alex and the massive rock wall and his hands, feet, a chalk bag and awesome climbing shoes. Certainly his physical condition was at peak, his mental readiness is something I still cannot comprehend. 

Even though you go into the movie theatre knowing that the climbing was successful, the film makers, the crew and the editors, they are able to create a connection between the audience and Alex; the tension in the last 30 minutes of the film is, well you will have to experience this for yourself. I had to cover my eyes several times. The entire audience was gasping, moving in their seats, clasping their hands, it was intense. 

If you go see the movie, watch it on a big screen at the theatre. This certainly enhances and makes come to life the sheer grandeur and beauty of the natural setting, in addition to the almost super powers feat of what the climber is able to accomplish. Throughout the film as Alex prepares, you know that he is fit and that physically he is a capable to make the climb. 

The issue of being able to preserve his life by completing a successful climb is all mental and you get an idea of what he has to do to be 150% prepared.  As I understood the preparation, he could not at any point in the climb have any DOUBTS of his next hand hold and/or foot hold. As he says, "doubt is the precursor to fear" and at no point in the climb could there there be any possibility of doubt. He went into the climb with hours and hours and hours of rehearsal and memorization of each hand hold and foot hold based on the route he selected for the climb. At one point in the film he describes it as dance moves and he had to know every move. 

The documentary is about many topics or themes, in addition to the main story of the climb and how Alex prepares, there is also the component, ethical, moral and logistical of how the film is made.  Film crews had to climb the wall and position themselves, suspended by rope, with camera equipment so they could be up close to the actual climb.  The film crew also had to be prepared for the worst. According to the film maker, Jimmy Chin, once the idea of the film came to be, they all took a period of about 6 months to consider all the possibilities related to what if Alex was not successful.  How would they manage and deal with being front and center with cameras if Alex fell to his death.  

The film also provides the story of Alex's life, his relationship with his family, friends and his girlfriend, Sanni. This part of the film leads the audience to question, at least I did, Alex's ability or sensibility regarding his actions and decisions and how they impact others, his family, his girlfriend, his friends and supporters.  

While he was advised and questioned many times on why the climb, why the massive risk of knowing that any failure would lead to death, for Alex, the challenge of the climb, the accomplishment of "true mastery", the satiating of his dream, for him this was the only consideration.  

And to be fair to him, (while I can't get inside his mind), if I were making a climb of this magnitude with a zero room for error, honestly I would have to block out any and all considerations, especially emotional considerations and focus on the climb. And you get a glimpse in the film of some part of his psyche that is very foreign to most everyone who will watch this movie.  Alex's capacity to compartmentalize and only focus on himself and the climb, while incredible, at the same time is a bit dark. I was actually sad for Alex.  

As I was sitting in the audience, I imagined that his loneliness must be as tall and breathtaking as El Capitan.  I'm not sure how many people would be willing to make the trade off, or would even consider the trade off.  What took 3 hours and 56 minutes to complete, a super human feat, consumed all of Alex.  

The consumption of Alex  I can only imagine, monumental, no emotions, no connection with others close to him, no consideration and even a hint of responsibility for his choice to risk his life. I'm not passing judgement on this person, it's simply something I cannot comprehend. 

Certainly that is why the world and everyday is so interesting, we are all different, we all think and feel and prioritize our lives, dreams, hopes, aspirations differently. 

If you like going to the movies, I recommend FREE SOLO !  And after you see the movie, check out Alex Honnold's TED TALK.