Three years ago, the documentary Meru made the shortlist for the 88th Academy Awards. It didn’t get nominated, but it was a very extraordinary film. It was about three mountain climbers who tried to scale part of the Himalayas in India. Jimmy Chin was one of the climbers. He was also one of the directors of the film. He co-directed it with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Chin and Vasarhelyi are at it again and are documenting another mountain climb. Instead of the Himalayas, this time it’s the Sierra Nevada mountains and specifically a large rock that’s 3,000-feet-high inside Yosemite National Park in northern California, known as El Capitan. Instead of three climbers, the focus here is solely on one, namely Alex Honnold who at age 31 attempted to scale El Capitan without the aide of ropes, a process referred as “free solo climbing” or “free solo.” Because of the similarities in subject matter and of the people behind the scenes, this movie is basically Meru II.
It’s likely that this film will also make the Oscar shortlist. However, the momentum behind this one is stronger, so it might get the nomination. First off, the box office receipts for this film is now double what Meru got. The Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score are both higher for this film than Meru. This film also won the People’s Choice Award for Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF. It’s not a sure-bet, but lately TIFF award winners get pathways to the Oscars. However, if this film is nominated for an Academy Award, the recognition would be mainly for Honnold as an athletic climber because Meru is far-and-away the better film.
Given that it was recently reported that climbing would become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this film is fortunately topical. Honnold even expresses in the film that he hopes to be an inspiration to future climbers. Maybe, he’ll even compete in the Olympics, as it becomes evident that he is literally at the top of his field in terms of alpine athletes or even professional mountaineers. In that regard, this film is not unlike so many films about athletes who have to train and practice in order to perform. This is about a singular athlete not in a team sport, so this could perhaps be compared to a boxing film like Rocky (1976). However, Honnold isn’t competing against another person. It’s more about himself versus a piece of nature.
The films does a good job of making it clear how dangerous the situation is. People have climbed El Capitan, but no one has ever done so without the aide of ropes. The reason is due to the shape of the granite. Presumably, it’s better to free climb a piece of rock that has ridges or indentations or bulges that would allow the climber something to grab with his hands or step upon with his feet in order to help with the ascent. El Capitan has virtually none of those things. Its walls are practically smooth. Honnold even notes that in one spot, the walls are as smooth as glass. That spot or pitch is called Pitch 23, and it’s the most likely spot where Honnold would fall to his death. There are other places where if he slipped, he would also die and the movie makes note of them.
On the screen, we see a listing of the various men who have died while doing a free solo. Chin and Vasarhelyi emphasize over and over how the likelihood is that he will die. As a result, contemplation of Honnold’s possible demise is the subject of discussion in a meta-context, as Chin and his camera crew insert themselves in the movie. It only becomes an issue because mounting or positioning cameras to document Honnold’s ascent is thought to be possibly distracting and could cause Honnold to slip and fall if the cameras were all around him, filming his every move. Honnold expresses some nervousness and anxiety of having his death captured on video, but the effect of the cameras on him is more speculation and immeasurable. He doesn’t seem nervous about the cameras at any other time.
Sanni McCandless is the girlfriend of Honnold and it’s suggested that her presence in his life is also affecting his performance in climbing. His relationship with McCandless exposes the quirks and eccentricities of Honnold’s personality, which Chin compares to the personality of Spock from the TV series Star Trek. McCandless says that Honnold has trouble expressing his emotions. A lot of it feels like handwringing over Honnold’s initial comment about preferring mountains over women. The movie wants to set up this dichotomy where mountains and women are mutually exclusive in Honnold’s life. It’s a dichotomy that’s ginned up for this film but never feels as solid an issue as it’s perhaps supposed to be.
I know that what Honnold is doing is incredible. Yet, as rendered on screen, I wasn’t that impressed with Honnold’s feat. I was more enthralled by Tom Cruise’s scaling a cliff in Mission: Impossible – Fallout or his scaling Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Somehow, I even felt more scared for Cruise than I did for Honnold. Maybe, it was due to the fact that Honnold had detailed every inch of that rock-face and was so well practiced on climbing it, having done it dozens upon dozens of times. It wasn’t as thrilling as Philippe Petit’s walk in Man on Wire (2008). Yes, climbing it is still an endurance test, but, beyond further cementing Honnold’s placement in the Guinness Book of World Records, there’s not as interesting a narrative here as in Meru or as overwhelming a journey.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.