There’s something about a director who could have used slow motion in so many scenes, but chose not to. Jimmy Chin (“Meru”) is one of those directors, and his 2018 documentary “Free Solo” is his successful experiment in such measures of directorial restraint.
“Free Solo” follows the physical, mental and emotional journey Alex Honnold undertakes to become the first person to climb Yosemite’s 3,000-foot wall El Capitan free solo,“free solo,” meaning without ropes or other safety gear. However, viewers expecting a familiar, feel-good, man-versus-nature epic should beware. While “Free Solo” is about a major feat of mankind, it resists audience expectations for such a film at every turn.
The vignette-style storytelling in the documentary, for instance, may surprise audiences. Adherence to chronological momentum seems only natural for such a story: man dreams of something all his life, man trains, man overcomes set of obstacles, man prevails. Instead, the narrative advances like patchwork, scenes stitched together to illuminate aspects of Honnold’s personality, background and motivation in an unregimented fashion. Chin’s use of vignettes thus removes the pressures of time and sidesteps the contrivance of climax that might have given cause for some eye-rolling and undermined the authenticity of Honnold’s struggles. This mode of storytelling respects not only the subject of the film but its viewers, too; freed from the condescension of melodrama, the viewer can focus on what is in front of them as opposed to what is coming next.
Some of the questions the film poses — as well as those it must flout in turn — might also come as a surprise to viewers. Take, for example, the role of Sanni McCandless in the documentary. McCandless is Honnold’s girlfriend, and let us first note that, in another display of Chin’s directorial prudence, she receives the respect secondary cast members in documentaries rarely receive. The centrality of Honnold’s role in the film is not used as an excuse to define her strictly in relation to him. The filmmakers avoid the obvious questions — reality television questions, like “Will Alex’s free spirit be tamed by Sanni’s desire for to settle down?” — and instead, ask something much more compelling: If, like Honnold, you are hopelessly in love with what you do, what is left for the people you love? Do you still need another person’s love?
Chin engages another particularly compelling question in “Free Solo” — a question a more self-important director wouldn’t dare address. Chin himself makes multiple appearances in the documentary, more often than not confessing his reservations about the making of the film itself. In one particularly telling interview, Chin voices his gravest fear: Honnold falling out of the frame to his death through the lens of his camera, and not being able to do anything but watch. The director questions his role in the documentary in a self-aware, humble way. How complicit is the documentarian in the events he captures? If the very real possibility of Honnold’s death were captured on film, what would that mean for Chin and his crew?
While these deliberations of Chin’s were purposeful, in another respect, he just got lucky: Alex Honnold is a character. Perhaps one has to be to climb a 3,000-foot rock. Yet Chin was wise enough to recognize this and let Honnold be himself. He could have exploited him, overwrote him. Instead, he respected him enough to let him inflect his own story with his own voice — his own sardonic, witty and ever-memorable voice.
The carefulness of this documentary culminates in the final climactic sequence, capturing Honnold’s successful climb of El Capitan. Perhaps the most telling detail of the composition of this sequence is that the dramatic score one would expect to accompany astonishing shots of the grandeur of nature is perforated by the sounds of Honnold’s labored breath. The elegant inelegance, the intimacy that makes “Free Solo” a standout documentary, is encapsulated in the radical passion Honnold’s lives and literally breathes.
And what is this the culmination of? A viewing experience that feels more like reading a personal essay — the paragon of idiosyncratic, humbling, precious intimacy — as opposed to recycling any tired formulas of this genre of film. In other words, a viewing experience like no other, and, in this increasingly oversaturated, overfiltered world, a viewing experience desperately needed.