Free Solo


Why ask why?

(2018) Documentary (National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Peter Croft, Deidre Wolownick. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

 

It is in man’s nature to push the boundaries; if there’s a goal to be achieved, it is human nature to want to top it. This goes through all endeavors of life – physical, artistic and financial. Being the best at something gives us a sort of patina of immortality. Still, there are some goals so dangerous, so daunting that there can be no topping it. In fact, there are goals that some would call insane.

Alex Honnold has one of those and it involves Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan. El Cap, as climbers call it, is the Mecca of rock climbing. 3,000 feet of nearly sheer granite, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Rock climbers from all over creation flock to Yosemite Valley to try their hand at it and a good many do succeed. However, all of those who have done so have used ropes and safety equipment to make their way up the rock. Honnold wants to be the first to free solo El Cap – that is, climb without any safety equipment or ropes altogether, relying only on his body and a bag of chalk dust to keep his grip from getting slippery.

Climbing El Capitan in the best of circumstances requires rigid focus; one mistake can result in a fall. Even with safety equipment, people die climbing El Capitan. It is seriously no laughing matter and to do so without harnesses and pitons and ropes makes most sensible climbers’ blood run cold. Hell, I know nothing about rock climbing and the thought of it makes my genitalia shrivel. One mistake for a free soloist on El Capitan and the unfortunate will end up a puddle of gore on the valley floor. Pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in conquering the previously thought unclimbable Dawn Wall, recalls that most of the people he knew who made Free Soloing an essential part of their lives are dead.

The film mainly focuses on the preparation for the historic climb. The husband and wife directing team of Chin (a climber in his own right and a friend of Honnold) and documentary filmmaker Vasarhelyi painstakingly set up their camera positions, wanting to keep close enough to get great shots of Alex but also far enough away so that their presence doesn’t interfere with the climb. Chin muses at one point about how ethical his participation is, when at any moment he could see his friend plummeting through the frame to his death.

The question is why do it and that’s never really satisfactorily answered. Honnold has a girlfriend (McCandless) who is steadfast and ends up moving in with him; previous to that Honnold was living out of his van. Not because he didn’t have money – his books and sponsorship deals have been lucrative – but because he preferred not to have any commitments. McCandless is well aware that when it comes to scaling mountains, she will finish second every single time. When it’s time for Honnold to make his ascent, she is sent away and the worry is absolutely heartbreaking.

There is an extreme amount of selfishness that has to do with any sort of obsession and we see it here. The worry of those who love him may register somewhat with Honnold but at the end of the day their excruciating emotional turmoil doesn’t matter enough for him to call off his climb. To be fair this tends to be the truth for those who achieve things that are extraordinarily difficult – I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s wife wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of his going to the moon – but we are left to look at Honnold and other achievers of that nature to be, well, jerks. Honnold seems nice enough and he’s certainly charismatic but the filmmakers are only looking at one aspect of him because that’s what the movie is all about. Consequently he comes off seeming pretty one-dimensional.

It also must be said that the 20 minute sequence of Alex’s historic climb are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments in any movie this year. The climb, which lasted just under four hours, is captured with vertigo-inducing shots of the drop below Honnold’s feet and set to the sound of his breathing. It is inspiring in some ways, but also terrifying.

This is a powerful chronicle of the power of achievement and the obsession that fuels it. My issue is that some kid somewhere is likely to be inspired to follow Honnold into free soloing and end up dying because of it. For that reason, I really hesitate giving this the kind of acclaim the film probably deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The final climbing sequence is edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff and is the best sequence in the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers really focus in on Alex’s obsession to the exclusion of everything else pretty much, making him a very limited personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much peril and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honnold and Caldwell recently became the first climbers to scale the Nose on El Capitan in under two hours.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dawn Wall
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Randy’s Canvas

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The Dawn Wall


You can’t beat the view at dawn on the Dawn Wall.

(2017) Documentary (Red Bull/The Orchard) Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, John Long, Mike Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Kelly Cordes, Terry Caldwell, John Dickey, Jason Smith, Matt Jones, Gail Jorgeson, John Branch, Matt Jones, Tom Evans, Becca Pietsch. Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer

 

There is a fine line between endeavor and obsession. Sometimes a concept can completely take over our lives to the point of souring relationships, alienating family and forcing us to forsake all other things in service to that one thing, that accomplishment that would make our lives complete. It is hard for outsiders to understand.

Tommy Caldwell is one of the world’s most accomplished free climbers – climbers who eschew devices for anything other than safety reasons. Ascent is accomplished only by using limbs; fingers, toes, heels and sometimes other body parts. It requires insane athleticism, even more insane pain tolerance and the kind of focus that requires rigid discipline and unrivaled preparedness.

For rock climbers like Caldwell, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is Mecca. The granite monolith towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The back of El Cap, as climbers affectionately call it, has trails that lead to the top for those who are less Type A. Most reputable climbers have done several different ascents of the mountain which are some of the most challenging on earth. Of particular note is the Dawn Wall, so called because when dawn breaks in Yosemite the Dawn Wall is the first surface to be lit by the rays of the sun. Nearly completely smooth, there are few places for hands to grip, for feet to gain purchase. Even the most legendary climbers, like John Long (who provides much of the technical commentary here) were certain that the Dawn Wall couldn’t be climbed.

Caldwell is the type of man who if you tell him he can’t do something, he goes right out and does it anyway but this was different and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of challenges. While on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, he and then-girlfriend Beth Rodden as well as two other climbers were captured by rebel terrorists. After a remarkable escape, they all returned home safely although Tommy was seriously affected by the incident. Shortly after marrying Rodden, he accidentally sliced off half of his left index finger. Any climber will tell you that free climbers rely heavily on the index fingers. For most free climbers that would be a career killer.

However Tommy Caldwell is not most free climbers. He trained his other fingers to pick up the slack and also to utilize  the remainder of that index finger and emerged a better climber. By this time the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall – which no human had ever accomplished – had taken hold. He spent more and more time researching routes of the wall, climbing parts of it, looking for  route that gave him a chance to accomplish the impossible. His obsession and depression proved to be too much for his marriage. Tommy needed a climbing partner to help him ascend the Dawn Wall; he found one in Kevin Jorgeson, a cheerful California boy who was looking for a new challenge after he had become one of the top boulder climbers in the world. Tommy convinced him to dive right into the deep end – the most challenging free climb on Earth. Together, the two men planned and researched and argued and trained until at last they were ready to make history.

The expedition made headlines all over the world when it happened although to be honest I don’t remember much about it. We see network coverage of the time however, reporters calling on Tommy’s cell phone which apparently got service while hanging on the side of a rock. Documenting the attempt were an army of cameramen and riggers, some hanging from the top of El Cap and giving viewers a unique you-are-there experience. We see the bloody hands of the climbers after a day of hanging by their fingers on razor-sharp cracks in the rock.

The views are breathtaking and Caldwell’s story is amazing. Jorgeson gets less coverage by the team but his moment is in facing the most difficult section of the climb – Pitch 15 (the climb was divided into 32 different sections, called pitches) – which Tommy conquered early on but Kevin made attempt after attempt, always losing his grip and falling (safety lines are worn to prevent them from falling to their deaths). As both men grow more frustrated, Tommy decides to continue on further with Kevin acting as support. Kevin is disappointed but when Tommy conquers the last difficult pitch and stands atop Wino Tower, he knows he doesn’t want to hit the summit alone. He makes an extraordinary decision that puzzles veteran climbers but not those who know him best.

As a character study, we get to know bits and pieces of Tommy Caldwell but he is a fairly shy individual so some things are difficult for him to articulate. That’s okay though: this isn’t really about the story of Tommy Caldwell precisely but at the end of the day it’s about the resilience of the human spirit, the need to conquer the unconquerable, to expand our horizons and to make the impossible possible. In this divisive age where the American spirit seems stunted by political tribalism, self-absorption and malaise, we need men like Tommy Caldwell more than ever. The triumph of mountains conquered – whatever shape those mountains take – is within the grasp of all of us who are willing to make the sacrifice to achieve.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely mind-blowing, particularly the footage on the wall. Caldwell’s story is the kind that is too bizarre to be anything but real.
REASONS TO STAY: Caldwell’s obsessive behavior might be too much for some viewers to understand.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dawn Wall originally made its American premiere at Sundance this year and has also been shown in selected theaters as part of Fathom Events special programming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meru
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Love, Gilda

Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall