A couple more thoughts regarding the newly-Academy-Award-nominated documentary Free Solo:
Restrictions can often be an artist’s best friend; limiting the scope of their canvass often forces them to make more out of less.
That seems to have been the case with Free Solo.
Since it depicts a painstakingly-gradual event — a man, Alex Honnold, climbing an impossibly-flat rock face without any support whatsoever — that cannot be filmed from a variety of angles for obvious reasons (unlike the mere annoyance cameras might cause most subjects, the possible ramifications here were fatal), directors Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi instead dedicate a majority of the duration to lucidly probing the life and psychology of someone willing to defy death…for what? That’s the impossible question the documentary explores.
Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi’s previous documentary, doesn’t dig as deep into the minds of its figures, perhaps because its breadth — covering multiple climbs and climbers over years — provided more footage to bring their tales to life.
And yet, with Free Solo, I was still left wanting to see more of his actual ascent, which Chin and Vasarhelyi could’ve accomplished by making the most of their limited means. I can’t imagine I would’ve gotten bored watching every second of his struggle (the fact we know he survives — ethical filmmakers wouldn’t have released it otherwise — in no way dampens the excruciation of our mortal dread for him). He’s literally navigating a tightrope over his own life, and every inch his body moves could be his last. That’s the sort of harrowing viewing experience steeped in suspenseful minutiae that can best be captured utilizing the precise intimacy of film.