Tuesday 15 October 2019

Television review: No mountain high enough

Free Solo (National Geographic)

Climber Alex Honnold negotiates El Capitan in Free Solo
Climber Alex Honnold negotiates El Capitan in Free Solo
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There was a very interesting article in The New York Times recently about Free Solo, the documentary about the great climber Alex Honnold which has won Oscar and Bafta awards and which made it to our televisions last week.

It was very interesting to me at least, because it sounded like something that I had written some time ago in these pages, about someone else. "In a world of BS artists - and in a country led by one - Honnold is modelling something else, a kind of radical truthfulness. Either he's going to get it exactly right, or he's going to die," wrote Bret Stephens.

Now, Tiger Woods was never going to die on the golf course - not from playing the game anyway - but when everything went wrong for him, I felt that people were missing this point. That in a world inundated with corporate BS in particular, Woods with his singular mania for excellence, could be seen as a force moving in a better direction.

Admittedly he didn't have much time for "radical truthfulness" in that thing we call "real life", but in the life that mattered to him the most, he really had to get that ball into that hole, he couldn't just have his people draw up a press release pretending that he'd done it, and pretending that he'd be doing it, going forward.

Likewise Alex Honnold doesn't have a PR department, he doesn't have a press secretary who will create spin on his behalf, as he prepares to climb Yosemite's El Capitan without a rope, without a helmet, without anything.

No, there isn't any need for spin here, this is all perfectly clear and perfectly terrifying. Honnold just has a small camera crew trying to find some way of getting his astonishing efforts on film, without everybody dying either by falling off the mountain, or just from heart failure at the thought of it.

So you can skip past all the usual queries and qualifications, the usual hints and allegations, and you can just head straight to the raw centre of this human being who is doing this impossible thing, and of the human condition in general. This is what people are loving about this documentary, how it brings us into the presence of so many fundamental propositions - like, what is it, that persuades certain people they can do something that seemingly can't be done? And if they can embark on these magnificent adventures, does it then matter that they are not necessarily equipped for the demands of "real life"?

Personally, it didn't matter to me that Tiger Woods was so unsuccessful at the things that far less talented people can do quite easily, but it mattered to some people, and I don't just mean his wife.

Honnold is similarly fanatical in his concentration on climbing, but he acknowledges that his "personal" life is not so rich - like Tiger, he comes from a family in which high achievement was seen as being more important than emotional intelligence.

Yes, he is a very engaging fellow, but there is no doubt that his pursuit of his mountainous ambitions is more important to him than his relationship with his girlfriend.

Here we see the power of Free Solo, because from the moment his girlfriend appears, we are increasingly concerned for him, we realise that if he is "distracted", even for a millisecond, it might kill him. So extreme are the demands on him, up there on El Capitan, we feel that he can't possibly have the resources to be exploring his feelings on the side.

And, yes, we are more concerned for him than for her, simply because he is the one clinging to the side of a vertical rock, and if something goes wrong up there, he's not going to get over it in the fullness of time - for him there will be no more time.

What he is giving us, in return for our concern, is this one-man equivalent of the moon landing. He reasons that since all of us in theory might die on any given day, climbing "just makes it feel much more immediate and present."

He can live with that.

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