There were plenty of notable awards and performances at the Academy Awards last Sunday. Rami Malek won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury, “Roma” got snubbed for the Best Picture award by “Green Book,” and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sang the song from their movie that is more popular than the movie itself. It is an event where nearly all of the famous faces in Hollywood collect, eager to receive some validation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Out of all of the prestigious awards and faces, the award for Best Documentary might as well have been an informal bathroom break for the casual viewer, as many wish to pay closer attention to the more popular categories. But for the directors of the winning film, husband and wife duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the award caps the end of a series of successes that have brought the adventure documentary “Free Solo” an unprecedented amount of success for a nonfiction film.
The documentary combines Chin’s eye for a dramatic image, that he obtained from his work as a National Geographic photographer, with Vasarhelyi’s filmmaker intuition for dramatic narrative, as they record Alex Honnold’s historic climb of El Capitan, a 3000-foot cliff face of granite rising up out of the Yosemite Valley. One would think that the compelling aspect of the film would be the fact that Honnold, a fanatic among daredevils in the climbing community, attempts the climb alone and without any ropes or harness to save him hence the title “Free Solo.” Yet for all intents and purposes, a seemingly niche film, such as “Free Solo” that is confined to a specific low-profile sport is not likely to be getting all sorts of awards and certainly shouldn’t be breaking any records. But like its subject, the film has succeeded by taking calculated risks and being honest.
There is no actual reality that can be conveyed through film, as the medium is inherently biased with its physical and mental perspective fixed by directors and their camera lens, but there is a great divide between the likes of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and the documentaries that have reinvigorated this genre of film as of late. Instead of superficial subjects and superfluous conflicts, Chin and Vasarhelyi opt to portray Honnold’s journey to the peak of El Capitan in a way that is honest, respectful, and compelling. Instead of sensationalizing the climb of El Capitan itself, Chin records the climb in a way that mimics Honnold’s own zen-like attitude. The real tension drama occurs below as those that care for Honnold, specifically his girlfriend Sanni, have to deal with the helplessness resulting from his immovable determination to risk his life for this singular pursuit.
The directors do not shy away from showing Honnold’s willful lack of empathy, as the audience watches him say in one interview, “I’ve had this problem with girls a lot … they’re like, ‘Oh I really care about you’ and I’m like … if I perish it doesn’t matter, you’ll find somebody else.” Then he pauses and it’s clear that he finally registers what he’s saying, at least a little bit, as he backpedals uneasily saying, “Maybe that’s a little too callous.”
This is the power of “Free Solo,” and of nonfiction film-making. This is the reason that documentaries made $112 million in 2018, and the reason “Free Solo” broke indie box office records. The honest and real portrayal of an individual is the driving force behind this documentary, and the decision to explore Holland’s flaws and celebrate his success in spite of them, instead of morphing him into a cartoon or sex symbol as other entertainment mediums might, helps make the documentary stand out. In an interview with Variety, Jimmy Chin attributed the success of documentary films in recent years to the fact that, “people are also looking for truth” and that “non-fiction filmmaking is … ultimately journalism.”
Pure, objective truth is impossible to obtain, and one could argue that in the current political climate it is being twisted beyond recognition. The only other option is subjective truth, the kind of truth a director can convey through a screen to share the humanity of a man capable of a herculean feat, and the consequences that feat generates. Holland’s story isn’t confined to overreactions and ephemeral relationships, but a story of perseverance and growth that continued up to the moment he and Sanni stood aglow on stage as his film’s directors received their Oscars. It will continue still as those who experienced his story remember the moment he completed his lonely ascension of El Capitan to finally embrace his loved ones at the peak.