Like a free-climber without a net, I switched my Oscar doc prediction to ‘Free Solo’ — and here is why

Some days during Oscar season when you work at Gold Derby, you wake up, smell the odds and realize that you must finally change one of your predictions if you want to protect your prognosticating reputation.

That happened this morning, when it dawned on me that I needed to switch to “Free Solo,” a vertiginous documentary about a 33-year-old man-boy named Alex Honnold who literally risks his very being by zealously participating in a sport that has snuffed out many a life of a fellow free-climbing enthusiast. I had previously clung to “RBG,” a much-needed sane and safe harbor in the current political climate, the way Honnold hugs the slippery expanse of soaring rock faces with barely anything resembling equipment.  I currently have a Ruth Bader Ginsberg action figure gazing down at me, ready to use her tiny plastic gravel on anything that would come between me and my keyboard.

But I realize that I picked the bio-doc about the Supreme Court justice partly to make up for the fact that somehow, someway the documentary branch decided to overlook Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a tonic for turbulent times if there ever were one. To my mind, his tribute to children’s show host Fred Rogers made me laugh, cry, sigh and feel despair that no one has stepped up and offered such a glorious safe harbor to preschoolers and adults alike since. I am partially prejudiced since I visited Pittsburgh’s WQED and interview Mr. Rogers in the early ‘90s. He was nursing a cold and having to do multiple takes while struggling to film one of his episodes. However, that didn’t stop him from showing me his sweater closet and allowing me to push his trolley.

SEE Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi could collect Oscar IOU with ‘Free Solo’

But back to “Free Solo.” Why will it win? Because in a way Honnold is an artist of sorts, one who works definitely without a net as he searches out elusive footholds, dangles from his fingertips and hugs vast expanses cold hard rock. Oscar voters can likely relate to his daredevil calling and footloose lifestyle. It reminds me of one of my favorite Oscar-winning docs, 2008’s “Man on Wire.” Married filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are able to capture the thrills and chills of high-altitude camera angles and take us to forbidding places that most of us are too scared to even look at let alone conquer.

What truly elevated “Free Solo” for me was when a loner like Honnold finally gets involved with a pretty,upbeat and indulgent woman named Sanni McCandless, who suddenly is a rival to his obsession. Will this distraction upset his goal of being the first free-soloing climber to scale the nearly 3,000-foot El Capitan, Yosemite’s notorious granite wall? Will love prove a barrier to his feats or will its power make him succeed at all cost?  Would this film have ever been made if the answer wasn’t yes?  But I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mr. Rogers would say to this stimulation junkie. Maybe it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.

PREDICT the Oscar winners now; change them until February 24

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 2019 Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on February 24.

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