Three years after making “Meru,” a documentary about a trio of mountain climbers, the risk averse husband and wife directing team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are back with “Free Solo.” Their new film chronicles one man’s attempt to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan unaided. Free solo means no ropes, no safety harnesses, nothing. Alex Honnold, 33, is set on scampering up three thousand feet of nooks, crannies, edges and in places, flat slippery rock with seemingly nothing to grab onto.
“Meru” made the Oscar short list of 15 for Best Documentary. Unfortunately, despite a number of industry luncheons — one in New York was moderated by fan Tom Brokaw — the film met a mountain it couldn’t climb. It was denied an Oscar nomination. The audience award at Sundance didn’t matter to the academy.
At the recent New York premiere of “Free Solo,” fans like Ben Stiller (he brought his daughter) agreed that it’s time the dizzying daredevil documentarians get an Oscar. “I hope so,” Stiller said just after posing for a family photo with Chin on the red carpet. Stiller is a great example of academy voters who apparently do think the “rock stars” highlighted in these films deserve recognition.
Distributor National Geographic, already on a roll with the lauded “Science Fair,” has thought of everything for this Time Warner Center event. Next to the red carpet is a 20 foot rock wall reporters and fans can climb wearing virtual reality head gear. Actor Steve Zahn called it “very cool.” I did it. He’s right.
The fact that filming this could actually constitute a snuff film if anything went wrong was not lost on the filmmakers. At one point — spoiler alert — Alex says he’s not sure he can make the climb in front of cameras. The crew considers shutting down the production. Hint: they don’t.
So Chin is sanguine when I ask about Oscar chances this year. “You know, I never count my chickens before they’re hatched,” he says haltingly. You can tell they’ve been down this road before and don’t want to jinx it. Then he adds “But honestly I made a deal with myself and the Cosmos that if everybody survived this film and Alex made his climb, the film was gravy.” People do die in these films. Mountain climbing in general is a little tricker that shuffleboard.
So what keeps Chin and his colleagues coming back? “It’s something that I love and it gives me purpose and meaning in my life. To capture stories and hopefully inspire people.” So with everyone back down on terra firma, the awards climb begins. It’s a strong year for docs and so once again, it may not be easy. Maybe Stiller will host a lunch or two. But before Chin heads into the premiere, I have to ask: What’s the mountain you haven’t climbed yet? He smiles and then says “I don’t know.” Neither do I, but I know this. He’ll bring a camera with him. And when that movie comes out, I’ll bring a Xanax.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominations are announced on January 22.