It’s tempting to argue that Free Solo should win the Oscar for best documentary simply on the strength of its subject. Alex Honnold’s solo and ropeless climb of the 3,000ft vertical wall of El Capitan in Yosemite has been called a great athletic achievement but this is absurd. An absurd understatement, I mean, since it’s one of the great individual human achievements of all time.
The sheer number of chances Honnold has to die in the course of his ascent is so huge that even though we know he survives, certain sequences remain almost unwatchably scary. This is an indirect tribute to the skills of film-makers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (the dudeliest couple in the world, surely) but it’s not just a matter of vertiginous swoops and dizzying vistas. The problem, as Chin and Vasarhelyi have explained, is that Honnold’s grace and speed make the inconceivable look relatively easy. To counter such a delusion they focus in on the chess-like footwork involved in a few manoeuvres, though this, in turn, raises another issue. While Free Solo is a film that cauterises cynicism, it would be a shoo-in for most gripping footwear commercial as well as best cinematography.
Advances - Camera - Technology - Time - Films
Advances in camera technology mean that there has never been a better time to make climbing films, but since the crew had to be elite climbers and experts in this technology the choice of potential collaborators was narrowed down, in Chin’s words, to a handful, almost all of whom are, at some point, in shot.
This is crucial. Filming the climb influenced it in ways ranging from the aesthetic (was it Honnold’s decision to wear the red T-shirt that makes him blossom against the life-denying wall like a flower of tenacious and fragile beauty?) to the existential: might the distracting pressure of cameras increase...
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