Our Sport Editor, Charles Metcalfe, discusses why the documentary Free Solo became an Oscar-winning film.
“People who know a little bit about climbing are like, ‘Oh, he’s totally safe’, and then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out” – Tommy Caldwell, Free Solo
The Oscars took place last month, and whilst everyone was freaking out over Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, climbers were freaking out over Free Solo.
Free Solo won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature this year with its depiction of Alex Honnold’s free solo (no ropes, just a bag o’ chalk) ascent of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan.
El Capitan is supposedly the most “impressive” wall of granite on earth, and rears its vertical buttress over 900 metres from the ground. Over 30 people have died attempting the climb in the past 100 years; it goes without saying that Honnold’s feat is unprecedented, a one of its kind, but what made the feature worthy of an Oscar?
The project was funded and produced by National Geographic, so naturally the cinematography is stunning. Extended shots of Honnold and his crew stalking lace-to-lace beneath pine pinnacles and sun-glistened rock faces are spread throughout; there is never a moment of the climb’s glory left unexploited by Jimmy Chin or Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (directors) in this aspect of film-making.
The main worry was that the documentary would rely too heavily on the ascent itself, and not on other aspects of the project. Everyone knew that Honnold made it to the top and survived, so the real questions were: Why? What preparation went into it? And what is this guy made of? The technical aspects of the climb were of minimal interest, especially when selling to a target audience of non-climbers.
In all of these facets, the documentary succeeded. Honnold receives ample screen-time allowing viewers to realise his absurd talent and mental capacity. Chin and Vasarhelyi maintain a proximity with Honnold throughout, filming intimate moments inside his house-cum-van, gaining an understanding of his ultimately very human motivations.
The film runs at a slow and steady pace, giving viewers the feeling that they are riding along with Honnold in the build-up to the climb. Never is there a feeling of being dragged or rushed through any part. This places great emphasis on the ascent’s preparation, which was well documented, leaving the actual climb until the final 20 minutes of the feature.
Perhaps the most interesting decision taken by the directors was to document the lives of the people who surround Honnold, and how the project affected them. Chin, the other film-makers, and advisers such as Tommy Caldwell are all part of a tight-knit climbing community. Their reactions and feelings were expressed equally, which added emotional depth to the project as a whole. This was coupled with consistent conversation with Honnold’s girlfriend, whose attention almost took too much away from Honnold himself, but maintained an introspective eye into his personal life and the kind of man that he is.
Ultimately, I walked away from the experience with a better understanding of elite sport, wanting more, and with a desire to climb higher and further across the mountains of my own life.
The film is still showing in various independent cinemas across the Mildlands, but can also be bought on Amazon in DVD format.
Featured image by: Omeiza Haruna