2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Seven – FREE SOLO
The Members Only screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival is always a hot ticket. And there was plenty of speculation for what this year’s film might be. I personally had THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND as my favorite. Everybody involved scored a big win with FREE SOLO gripping the big house and big screen at the Oriental.
FREE SOLO tells the story of Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale El Capitan in Yosemite. Without a rope, piton, or any assistance whatsoever. It’s never been done before and anything less than perfection means death. Needless to say, the personal stakes don’t get higher.
The result is a white knuckle experience that will give anyone with any fear of heights a sustained scare. With modern technology including drones, you get angles and compositions that put you right there. On an enormous screen, the results are breathtaking. For sheer bravura filmmaking, FREE SOLO is a thrill ride like no other. It’s like the opening scene of CLIFFHANGER times a thousand.
The closeup extends to Alex Honnold himself. We get a real sense of who he is and what drives him. And how he’s quite literally bit differently than most people with a brain that doesn’t register fear like a normal person. He lives in a van and although he does make a living as a rock climber, you get the sense that it doesn’t mean all that much to him. The thrill and the accomplishment are what drives him. And the basic contradiction of him is that he’s thoughtful enough to understand the risks, even if that fear doesn’t get the better of him.
FREE SOLO understands the risks too. In fact, it takes great pains to show every slip Alex makes while wearing ropes as he practices for his attempt. It underscores time and again how potentially deadly the attempt is. And the strain it places on Alex’s girlfriend. She loves him, but it’s hard on her as she knows he could die at practically any point. Being on the edge of danger and over the edge is a razor thin margin. FREE SOLO doesn’t shy away from bringing up those ethical points. Even the filmmakers wonder if they’re being culpable in potentially driving Alex to his death, either through recklessly encouraging him for the sake of a film or potentially distracting him at a critical point.
In some ways, I think they never fully reconcile the ethical dilemmas of the attempt. Part of me was praying for the film not to be a snuff film. And I can’t but think that the film glamorizes an extremely dangerous sport that may inspire people to their deaths. Granted, everybody has individual responsibility for their actions, but I note that the US Park Services are not represented in the documentary. I bet they frown on the whole enterprise of free solo climbing. For good reason.
None of that takes away from the film as an immensely compelling visceral experience. It’s one of the most intense visceral experiences I can recall in my whole life. I wanted to tear my eyes away many a time but couldn’t. It’s that mesmerizing. That fearsome. That awesome.
FREE SOLO is going to open wider to the general public soon, including a theatrical run in Milwaukee. If you’re interested in intense cinematic experiences, it should be on top of the list. It may be the greatest mountain climbing documentary ever.
FREE SOLO only plays once during the film festival, but there are still hundreds of interesting, unique screenings before the end of the festival. The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 18, 2018 to November 1, 2018. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.