On Friday, April 12, for the last film of the season, the Williams Lake Film Club is thrilled to be bringing to the Gibraltar Room a riveting, visually stunning, and awe-inspiring film that you absolutely need to see on a big screen to fully appreciate.
Free Solo, the latest documentary from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, chronicles the rope-less solo ascent of Alex Honnold up El Capitan, a legendary 3.200 foot sheer granite rock wall in Yosemite National Park, as well as the two years of preparation that went into accomplishing this feat. You read that correctly: rope-less, meaning no ropes, no safety gear, and no room for mistakes.
The film exquisitely details the methodical emotional, physical and psychological preparation needed to execute such a climb. In a front-page story, the New York Times has called this accomplishment “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” Free Solo has won a ton of awards already, including an Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and most recently an Oscar for best feature documentary at this year’s academy awards.
If you are squeamish about heights, don’t let that deter you, as this is also one of the richest character studies to come out in film this year. One aspect that takes this climbing story to the next level is its probe into the psyche and background of Alex Honnold, and how he rationalizes such perilous goals (“athletic perfection” is what he’s after).
Although Honnold doesn’t have a death wish, interviews and a brain scan revealed that he is much less averse to risk than the average person. As film critic Richard Lawson notes, “he talks about the immediate threat of death as we might talk about stubbing a toe” (Vanity Fair, 2018).
When the cameras began filming Honnold for Free Solo, in the Spring of 2016, two years before the epic El Capitan climb transpires he meets his now girlfriend, the warm and openhearted Sanni McCandless, at a book signing. A self-confessed “loner” and “dork”, who lives in a van so he can climb as much as possible, Honnold claims that a lady will never come between him and climbing. While she doesn’t discourage his passion, she challenges throughout the film the idea the emotional distance is necessary to achieve the kind of focus he needs to fulfil his dream.
This is familiar emotional terrain for Free Solo’s filmmakers, Chin and Vasarhelyi, the married couple who were also behind 2015’s award-winning documentary Meru (about a risky ascent that Chin participated in, in the Himalayas). As well as being an accomplished producer and photographer, Chin is also world-class climber who has been involved in his own death-defying expeditions, and as his wife, Vasarhelyi has experience being on the other side of such a relationship.
Chin has a longstanding friendship with Honnold, and Honnold’s best friend and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell, and this camaraderie gives the film added intimacy and depth. Everyone involved in the shot was an experienced climber. Within the movie, the filmmakers also consider their own implication in a way that heightens the tension: will they be a distraction to Honnold on the mountain, or will Honnold be influenced by what Chin calls “Kodak courage” in their presence?
Emotional and psychological aspects aside, Free Solo provides some pretty spectacular rock climbing footage that is both thrilling and agonizing to behold. The second half of the movie focuses primarily on Honnold’s ascent and “[t]his plays out with as much (or more) suspense than any conventional thriller” (ReelViews 2018). Using fixed cameras, drones and handheld units, the cinematography is indisputably stunning.
As noted by film critic Ann Hornaday, “[t]rue to form, Chin and Vasarhelyi have made a film that works both as a praiseworthy historical document rich in context and visual detail, and as a gripping emotional journey full of mythical resonance.” (Washington Post 2018). When speaking about the themes in his work, Chin explains some of the inherent appeal to expedition story-telling: “I think there are a lot of meaningful stories come out of expeditions because they represent the positive side of humanity. Perseverance. Overcoming challenges. Teamwork. Trust.” (National Geographic, 2018).
Free Solo is best seen without interruptions or distractions, which is another compelling reason to see it on a big screen. The film is rated PG-13 for some brief strong language. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 7 p.m.
This is the last film to be screened before the summer, but films will start up again in the Fall of 2019. To stay up to date, follow the Williams Lake Film Club on Facebook, or check in at our website (www.williamslakefilmclub.com).