The documentary “Free Solo” focuses on free-climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to become the first human to claw his way up the 3,000-foot expanse of rock known as El Capitan without tools, safety gear or rope. Now the National Geographic production itself might make history as just the second doc to win an Oscar as well as an Emmy.
The title will compete for a primetime TV award in the category called Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, which was first given out in 2005. The lone recipient so far to claim both an Academy Award and an Emmy is “Citizenfour,” a 2014 HBO release directed by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.
Other documentaries have competed for both honors, including 2015’s “Cartel Land,” about the Mexican drug war that won an Emmy in a tie with “Jim: The James Foley Story,” and 2017’s “Strong Island,” a true-crime investigation about a legal injustice. “O.J.: Made in America,” which was a five-part miniseries for ESPN’s “30 for 30” was granted a 2016 Oscar but, oddly, not an Emmy despite its episodic format. It lost to “LA 92,” about the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
After the “O.J.” win, the academy put into place a new rule that barred multi-part or limited series to compete in the documentary categories.
“Free Solo,” whose amazing you-are-there camera work benefits from being seen on a big screen, also offers a compelling human story as a thrill junkie climber, in the midst of preparing to face the challenge of his life, meets a young woman who causes him to rethink his rootless life. One interesting component of “Free Solo” is that it was directed by a married couple, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. There is an emotional element in their sports doc that hooks the viewers as much as the feat in question does.
It is just the third time that an Oscar-winning doc was made by a husband-and-wife team. The first was 1991’s “In the Shadow of the Stars,” which focuses on the chorus of the San Francisco Opera. The second was 1993’s “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary,” about an inner-city Philadelphia school.
We will see soon enough if “Free Solo’ can achieve this double honor.
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