In late August, there I stood, in the Sheridan restaurant and bar in Telluride, with probably a little too much liquid confidence, talking to Damien Chazelle about how much I loved First Man. Actually, we weren’t talking about that at all. We were talking about bebop jazz drumming. It was a moment of actual conversation we shared during the few minutes when I, as an Oscar blogger, was meant to talk to him, as a film director. As surreal as these things can be, it felt like a genuine exchange.
I told Chazelle that my dad had been a bebop jazz drummer throughout the 1960s. He lit up, telling me that was what he’d wanted to be once upon a time. What was my dad’s name, he asked me. I told him. I also told him that he died last year, though it’s not something you really want to drop into a schmoozy meet-and-greet at a bar. He would not know my dad’s name. No one really knew his name. It’s just one of the many ways great people can become supernovas in a vast universe without anyone even knowing they’re there. Maybe some see the echo of the dying star. Maybe they don’t. Maybe they never even look up.
It’s hard to find any reason to feel good about humans anymore. Every day a new horror is reported. It flies by as a tragic tweet sandwiched in between something Kanye said and something Trump said. It’s the extinction of a whole species, it’s the horns of rhinos causing extinction of their species all so some man somewhere can try to get an erection from an ignorant superstition. It’s a million sharks killed per year for shark fin soup — so people can consume massive amounts of mercury in pursuit of fake cures. It’s the melting ice sheets. It’s the lead in the water in Flint. It’s the thousands of animals drowned during Hurricane Florence. Nothing good, all bad.
Most days it seems like everything on this planet would be better off if humans didn’t exist at all. And you know, that’s a hard theory to disprove. I know because I asked Facebook: What good are we? What do we do that is impressive beyond things that impress our own species? It was a tough question with scarce good answers. But one thing did come through — that thing about us that is pretty cool is how we have this hunger to explore. To roam. To discover.
In the middle of my conversation with Chazelle, another person came up to talk to him. They exchanged a few words; he politely introduced me. The new face looked familiar to me but I didn’t recognize the name. It wasn’t until later that I pieced it all together — the guy was Alex Honnold, the first man to ever climb El Capitan without using ropes.
It took me even longer to make the connection that Chazelle had made First Man, about Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon, and that Honnold had achieved a first man feat of his own. Free Solo and First Man are two of the best films I’ve seen this year, and on a fundamental level they each concern not only our most impressive trait as a species — but among the few redeemable traits that we humans can be proud to possess.
Two of the best films this year are about that very thing. Free Solo and First Man. Both are about humans going where we weren’t really meant to go in ways that seemed impossible. And even after the destination is reached, still seem impossible.
What motivated Alex Honnold to climb El Capitan without ropes is similar to the thing that inspired JFK to launch the space program, the quest to stand on the surface of the moon. The irresistible impulse that emboldened Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren, and the countless men (and some women) who have invested their lives to strike out into outer space is the same instinct that motivated homo sapiens to migrate out of Africa to inhabit every corner of the world hundreds of thousands of years ago. We are humans, therefore we journey, we go. We climb. We hike. We fly. We swim. We dive. We sail, we scuba, we skydive, we surf, we windsurf, we dig into the earth, we dig into the ice, we look up at the stars because inside us is that thing that makes us want to. Whatever it is, it is hardwired into our DNA and it means we’re not stopping any time soon.
Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is about a guy who was willing to risk death to climb to the top of El Capitan using no ropes. The movie makes his peril very clear. Chin and the camera crew climb El Capitan along with Honnold, but only the filmmakers have ropes. You better believe they have ropes. Who else would be as insane as Honnold to attempt that climb without ropes? Nobody. The film takes us into his life, to show us how he lives, what he eats, whom he loves, and even into his brain. What kind of brain does a person have to have to take such a monumental risk as this? Well, one like his — apparently it takes the adrenalin freak-out of extreme risk to make him feel truly alive.
In setting out to solo climb El Capitan Honnold has to do serious soul searching. Is he ready to die? Is he ready to leave behind his whole life, which he could lose in an instant? He could miss a single step and that would be that. He’d tumble down a sharp incline of 3000 feet. What we realize watching this movie is that he can’t not do it. Not doing it is, for him, worse than risking his own life.
In Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Neil Armstrong likewise has the same driving force, as do all of those selected to participate in the early days of the Apollo moon mission. Armstrong knows he could die, leave behind his wife and his kids. But the idea of not doing it is far worse to him, just as it is for Honnold.
Can the risk of seeking artistic achievement be compared to what Armstrong did or what Honnold did? It is the same desire, the same urge to reach beyond, to bet everything on the obsession that drives the creation of art. The failure is not loss of life, of course, but no one sets out to do the impossible believing they will fail.
Both films are exhilarating to watch — not just to live vicariously through these brave men, but also to feel the thrill of both filmmakers as they find ways to capture the beauty of height and motion. In both cases they’re taking us up so high we’re almost afraid to look down, and both cases it’s exhilarating. Both films make you feel like you’re experiencing what the adventurers are experiencing — a free solo up the side of one of the steepest, flattest inclines on earth — and the miraculous ecstasy of stepping out of a cramped space capsule onto the vast untouched surface of the moon.
Why do they do it? Because it is there. The moon is there. El Capitan is there. We are not exceptional in many ways as a species. Sharks get the better of us in the ocean. We could not survive without weapons against mighty beasts that could rip us from limb to limb. We’re the worst and most destructive invasive species the planet has ever known. We’ve gone everywhere we could go and that still isn’t enough. Humans have a need to conquer and that’s almost always destructive, so it’s a rare treat to witness events where our desire to dominate results in bliss instead of brutality.
There can be beauty in that urge to roam, that urge to go where no one has ever gone. That beauty is passionately captured in Free Solo and First Man, since both films carry with them a message that emphasizes our responsibility to each other and to the planet. We have the ability to destroy it, and in fact, that’s the path we’re on. We also have the ability to preserve it.
Both of these films, in their own ways, are about the magnificence of the planet we call home. El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth. To climb it, as Honnold does, is to appreciate every inch of it. It is monumentally indifferent to our dreams, as are the trees that will outlive us. In First Man, Chazelle brilliantly captures space flight in a way it’s never been captured before, as a nauseating, terrifying wild ride. But in the end, it’s about the beauty of the thing.
As a filmmaker, that is what Chazelle is always chasing: the beauty of the thing. In the music, in love, and here, in our ability to fail and fail and fail until at last, we land straight. But it is when we look back at our shimmering blue planet that we remember how what really matters is still all around us.
I didn’t get a picture of Honnold and Chazelle, in the mostly empty dark bar in Telluride. And I still don’t know why they were there together, or how they know each other. What that was about. I can only imagine that it was their shared curiosity for the whole grand adventure. Or maybe it was just the beauty of the thing.
Free Solo opened yesterday to the largest per screen average for all of 2018.
First Man opens on October 12. Don’t miss them.