26 February 2021

Free Solo: A Case Study of Inherent Structure in a Documentary

(Alert: Spoilers)

In my previous blog post, I highlighted the importance of finding the inherent structure in your documentary subject. I stated that the foundation of that structure is usually tied to an external goal of the main character in order to achieve the basic framework of a beginning, middle, and end. This concept is clearly illustrated in the Oscar winning documentary, Free Solo.

Free Solo follows Alex Honnold, the world’s best free-solo mountain climber. For those of you unfamiliar, free-soloing is rock climbing without ropes. Yep, it’s insane. In the setup, there’s some backstory of Alex’s successes, his fame in both the climbing community and pop culture, and his often awkward relationship with his new girlfriend, Sanni.

Only a few minutes in, Alex’s external goal is stated. He wants to free-solo climb the 3,200 foot El Capitan, or “El Cap” as Alex calls it, the most historic and never-before-climbed “wall” in Yosemite National Park. To make this goal even more dramatic, the feat has never been achieved before because no one has dared to free-solo El Cap. As his closest climbing friend explains, “I’ve climbed El Cap for twenty years, but never without a rope.” To put the climb into perspective, he then states that it would be like an Olympian either earning a gold medal or dying, with no in-between.

From this point on, we’re hooked as an audience because the central question is posed: Is Alex going to climb El Cap? Additional questions also form. If he does attempt climb it, will he plummet and die? Will he make it to the top? Will he quit before he even tries? Will his relationship endure the build-up to the climb? Will his close friends who are filming it lose their buddy? Worse, will they capture his death on film? Am I about to watch this guy fall to his death right before bed? These questions keep us watching and the drama could not be more tense. These core questions subsequently allow the film to take its time. Most of the documentary feels like a small boat floating on calm waters toward an unforgivable storm.

One element I failed to mention in the last blog is the concept of stakes. A character can have an external goal, but if the stakes are weak, the audience won’t care. The stakes in Free Solo are life and death. It doesn’t get more serious than that. Of course, not every subject allows for life and death stakes, but if it does, the potential for drama dramatically increases.

It’s important to note that the stakes need only be high in the mind of the character we’re following. For instance, in The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, the main character, Steve Wiebe, has the external goal of earning the top score in the original Donkey Kong arcade game. This is probably not a goal most people would have or care about under normal circumstances, but the fact that Steve is so obsessed that he spends time in his garage playing the game away from his family, reads hundreds of pages of the tip book, and engages in social conflict with the eccentric and pompous frontrunner, demonstrates that it’s important to him. Here’s the key- because succeeding is so important to him, it becomes important to us as the audience. We want to see him do it!

Once the external goal is established, there is room to explore other aspects of the main character, including internal struggles that are usually related to the external goal. For Alex, these internal conflicts fall under the umbrella of human connection. He’s admittedly awkward and tends to prefer solitude, which is illustrated by the fact that he’s lived out of a van by himself for the past seven years.

He has a girlfriend, Sanni, who for the most part supports his climbing. Alex struggles to connect with her and recognize her feelings, admitting that his family never displayed outward affection. Sanni admits that Alex has made some emotional strides, but still struggles to tell her, “I love you.”

Then there’s his climbing/filmmaker friends who are documenting his legendary goal. They want to be there to support him, but also fear that distracting him with cameras could cause his death. There’s an irony couched in these relationships. That is, the same fearless climbing that has introduced and brought Alex closer to these few people risks destroying these very bonds if he dies while free-soloing El Cap.

While training for the El Cap climb, Alex faces a few setbacks. While rope-climbing with Sanni on two separate occasions, he tears ligaments in his ankle and separates a few vertebrate after falling 30 feet. In addition to adding potential physical limitations, these injuries also further strain his relationship with Sanni. After recovering, Alex bails on his first attempt to free-solo El Cap. His friends begin to wonder if he’s lost his mental edge.

This only adds to the tension as Alex decides to attempt the free-solo of El Cap once more. Sanni drives back home, an unspoken arrangement to remove some of the immense pressure on him. This time, we know he’s going for it. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

Throughout Free Solo, the film does an excellent job of setting up various challenges on El Cap’s rock face, so when Alex makes it to those positions, we are sweating with anticipation. Even those of us unfamiliar with climbing moves have now been educated, so when he gets to one of those granite slabs or tight crevasses, we shout “Do the karate kick!” at the screen. As he is able to perform the transition, we are momentarily relieved and know he’s on his way to executing the unthinkable.

The film concludes with Alex reaching the top of El Cap in a well-deserved catharsis for both climber and viewer. The film crew was able to capture extremely close shots, including the details of Alex’s chalked fingers as he pinches shallow holds, but chose to close on a very wide drone shot that shows the scale of what Alex just did as he peers over the edge of the 3,200 foot face. The scenery is glorious as the external goal is accomplished and all of the essential questions are answered.

Alex soon gets a call from an overjoyed Sanni. She jubilantly tells him she’s proud of him and so very happy. He tells her he can’t stop smiling, something he doesn’t do as often as she’d like him to. Unprompted, he then tells Sanni, “I love you.” The audience is then left wondering what Alex’s greatest accomplishment actually was.

 

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