From Rock to Screen: Climbing at the Movies (FILM REVIEWS)
One guy uses ropes. The other one doesn't. For all intents and purposes, a review of two recent films centered on elite class rock climbing could end with those two sentences.
And while this is true at its most basic element, two recent and immensely fascinating documentaries go much deeper than this and demand viewers to consider not only the limits of the subjects' sanity and daring but their own views on reasonable risks and consequences in pursuit of one's goals.
The Dawn Wall and Free Solo each delve into the exploits of two of the world's most accomplished and greatest rock climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Adam Honnold. The former uses ropes. The latter doesn't. As aligned as these two gifted and unique athletes are, both in their respective sports, accomplishments and adventuring experiences, the films manage to expertly show why the two men possess vastly differing views on life, death and the assessment of risks versus consequences as it relates to their own lives.
In significant ways, the origins of both subjects are borne of commonalities: bright and independent as children but not engineered for the traditional world of school and all that comes with growing up in a regular environment. Both had fathers who were instrumental in helping nurture a love for climbing early on (Honnold's died when he was just out of high school while Caldwell's is alive today and an active follower of his son's exploits) and both became enamored with a nomadic, obsessive life chasing rock walls to conquer. At this point in their careers, both have become legends while still (miraculously?) alive, relatively youthful and able to enjoy the fruits of their labor while evolving far beyond the confines of a niche sport with limited popular exposure.
In The Dawn Wall, directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer carefully trace Caldwell's rise from a kid who went with his father on various outdoor adventures to rising star on the climbing circuit to finally the established "greatest climber in the world" for his spectacular scaling of difficult (if not seemingly impossible) rock faces all over the world. After his first marriage ends, Caldwell begins an obsessive mission to become the first person to successfully climb the infamous "Dawn Wall", a giant, three thousand foot hunk of rock slab on El Capitan, an iconic climbing destination located in Yosemite National Park. Lowell and Mortimer wisely center the film on this chase, focusing more on the journey than the actual accomplishment of Caldwell's ultimate goal.
Watching Caldwell meticulously chart his course up the imposing rock wall, down to the placement of his fingers and position of his shoe tip on various purchases almost unseen to the casual eye, delivers a tension and emotional investment most viewers would not associate with such a isolated and specific endeavor. The seamless insertion of Caldwell's personal story (complete with his complicated first marriage and incredible survival after being kidnapped by terrorists in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan while on a climbing sojourn abroad) make Caldwell more than a sympathetic figure--he becomes someone we know and root for the entire time. Caldwell's personal depth seeps out in degrees as his fame grows along with his responsibilities as a husband and father, a conflict putting his drive to scale staggering heights up against his feelings of wanting to, as he says, live to be an old man. Caldwell, unlike many of his outlandish predecessors and some thrill seeking contemporaries, knows what he does is dangerous no matter how good he is or how long he's survived. He accepts he could die doing it and this realization forces him to contemplate this morbid reality, thus giving the audience some validation that it's not crazy to think he's crazy.
Throughout Free Solo, Honnold demonstrates very little concern for these stark possibilities, only minimally taking into account his girlfriend Sanni McCandless (the two met when she attended a book signing of Honnold's
2015 book Alone on the Wall) ongoing concern for his safety, ultimately telling her he will pursue his dreams even if it fills those who love him with dread. To be fair, Honnold demonstrates personal growth during the course of this documentary, much of it coming by way of short vignettes with McCandless and his own admission of understanding the need to "get good" at things like hugging and saying "I love you" to those around him he cares about the most. McCandless, in Free Solo, humanizes Honnold more than he might otherwise appear without her in his life. He is, we come to see, not just an obsessive, neurotic thrill seeker. Quite the contrary, in fact, as we hear about many comrades--both older than him and the same age or younger--demonstrate far more risky, throw-caution-to-the-wind recklessness characteristics than Honnold ever does during the film. Many of these people died attempting the "free solo" style of climbing Honnold made his name doing and he continues to do the same thing yet still comes off as conservative when it comes to risk. Yet he still climbs without ropes. And remains alive and well.
Such is the contradiction Honnold represents in the film, prompting viewers to wonder if he is as authentic as everyone claims he is or he's simply a dude-charlatan exhibiting the finest of counter-marketing strategies to promote his brand. Judging by Free Solo I would lean toward the former. Directors Jimmy Chin (a top-shelf outdoor enthusiast--and climber--himself) and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Chin's wife) employ staggering cinematography in this film, consistently giving the audience breathtaking shots of Honnold and the landscape he populates while managing to establish sequences of ordinary life, communicating the spectacular nature of Honnold's work while showing the sometimes banal and mundane aspects of living life as a van-dwelling adult nomad.
While Honnold never turns up in Caldwell's story, the friendship between the two preeminent climbers is a significant part of the second half of Free Solo and offers a touching tribute to relationships build on mutual respect and admiration. Honnold grew up seeing Caldwell as "the man" (his words) and Caldwell served as the big brother-aged superior who realizes his younger rival has carved out his own legend in the sport for doing things Caldwell admittedly wouldn't dare attempt. At one point in the film, Caldwell compares climbing with Honnold as "addicting" and akin to giving into a "vice" from time to time and then returning to your regular activity. For someone of Caldwell's caliber to see another climber as radically revolutionary is the best endorsement for Honnold's legend anyone could hope for. Beyond this back and forth admiration, however, is something more important--true friendship, something clearly connecting the two in both on and off the rock walls. When he sees how serious Honnold is in scaling El Capitan rope free, Caldwell takes it upon himself to help prepare his friend for the feat because of its risk and magnitude, claiming correctly he is likely the only one who could help him with any effectiveness.
Part of what may steer some audiences to conclude The Dawn Wall a slightly better film overall lies solely on the subject's ability to project himself through storytelling. Caldwell has a more complete arc of experience so far, one ripe with a unique family upbringing, personal struggles, random tragedy and survival and the most consistently impressive climbing resume of anyone today. But this shortchanges Honnold's representation as an authentic and unique individual, one who made his own name in a tightly guarded sport by doing things nobody else had ever done. And then doing them over and over again, obsessively tracking his results while dreaming up projects he could run off and pursue in the future. Honnold is the real thing with no pretenses or facades. His girlfriend and the team filming his El Capitan climb help humanize Honnold, something Caldwell didn't need in The Dawn Wall; his self awareness and reflection comes across to the audience very quickly and seemingly without effort.
The cinematography of both films is simply outstanding, as the directors intersperse ordinary life vignettes and struggles in between long stretches of epic, magnificent forays of daring and adventure. Also appealing here is the ability of both films to intricately show what climbing is all about, from the gear to the spirit of the lifestyle. One could understand little to nothing about climbing and become enthralled watching these films while both documentaries also prove to be a bounty of riches for climbing enthusiasts.
The efforts to make these films could be a documentary unto itself (something The Dawn Wall attempts at the end of the film by showing a short reel of "making of" shots and outtakes). The Dawn Wall loses a bit of punch at the end when Caldwell appears on screen for a short, pre-filmed question and answer session, content which is interesting on its own merit but somewhat anticlimactic after sitting through a nearly two hour film which provides its own story arc, complete with conflict and its resolution. After the credits roll there simply isn't much more to say and even the film's subject can't follow up his riveting depiction with a by-the-numbers Q&A. In that respect, Free Solo is a more complete film, providing the audience a more compact, complete viewing experience without the extras.
We live in a world increasingly overrun with inauthentic, formulaic and often empty experiences. Modern conveniences and digital technology threaten to only exacerbate this reality. There remains value in watching people pursue objectives--physical feats of endurance--with authenticity and single-minded focus, as if turning down the volume of our noisy and crowded society to focus on something of merit, accomplishments which carry with them risk and reward, or in the case of Caldwell and Honnold, often life and death.
Through the eyes of these filmmakers, audiences can see how life can be lived, on the wall or not, if one is willing to take risks and keep critical voices at bay. Through their adventurous spirit and ambitious drive, both athletes model a lifestyle which feels and looks real and lived in, a space in between the static where human beings still chase after dreams seemingly out of reach but continue to move forward nonetheless. While their accomplishments are impressive in every regard, it is perhaps their audacity to pursue these goals which remains the most inspiring, showing us we all have walls to climb in our own lives, whether on rock wall or somewhere else. And that alone is all that's really worth doing.