Tag Archives: Jimmy Chin

Better Together


by George Wolf

Numerous biopics have shown us numerous ways to illustrate a life through formula and cliche. Nyad smartly maneuvers around most of those by anchoring a tale of persistence and achievement with a warm and intimate friendship.

The achievement is Diana Nyad’s quest to become the first to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Key West. She tried – and failed – at the age of 28, then took a few years off. Well, more than a few.

Crediting a “soul ignited by passion,” Nyad (Annette Bening) returned to her dream at the age of 61. And her best friend Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster) was there to train her, push her, and sometimes protect her from herself.

Oscar-winning documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo, The Rescue) are right at home with a true story of personal struggle, but together with screenwriter Julia Cox and the two veteran leads, carve out an entertaining and satisfying narrative.

Nyad is proud, motivated, and shamelessly self-absorbed (“It’s not that I don’t know I’m this way!”), while Bonnie is pragmatic, patient and heroically loyal. They make a fascinating and sometimes frustrating pair, and of course, Bening and Foster bring them both to life with a brilliant, lived-in authenticity.

And rather than a generic, chronological rehashing of Nyad’s life, indelible moments are seen in flashback, often at the most organic times. The long, solitary hours in the water meant Nyad’s mind would search for motivation, even if it was painful.

Chin and Vasarhelyi are not shy about weaving in some actual archival footage. And while that helps accentuate both the difficulty of Nyad’s quest and her love of self-promotion, it also adds to the list of story elements being juggled.

But with Bening and Foster setting the gravitation center, this ship never strays too far off course, and Nyad comes ashore as a worthwhile endeavor.

Slippery Slope

Free Solo

by George Wolf

There are only so many times I can use the word “breathtaking,” so Free Solo has me inventing some new ones.

“Sweatpalming”? “Gutknotting”? “Fascinating” works, too.

It’s all of those, a totally enthralling account of one man’s quest to do the unthinkable, and the uncommon psyche that drives him to do it.

Alex Honnold became hooked on rock climbing at an early age, eventually dropping out of Cal-Berkeley to live in a van and devote himself to the climb. Recognition and sponsor money soon followed, until his increasing devotion to climbing without safety equipment (“free soloing”) caused some sponsors to withdraw support, citing concern for pushing the boundaries of risk.

Last year, Honnold realized a dream eight years in the making, becoming the first human being to free solo up the 3200 feet of granite that is El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, a wall Honnold calls “the most impressive on Earth.”

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, plus a very visibly nervous crew, were there to document the climb with truly awe-inspiring footage that demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. You will marvel at the accomplishment even as you doubt Honnold’s sanity, which makes the second layer of the film that much more meaningful.

As they did with the mountain climbers in their 2015 docĀ Meru, Chin and Vasarhelyi want to get in their subject’s head, even following Honnold into an MRI brain exam when he wonders if there might be a biological reason for his death-defying urges.

It’s his upbringing, though, one of few displays of affection and a constant need to perform, that’s more revealing. We see Honnold as an extremely bright young man undeterred by societal concerns, yet consistently trying to self-access and become more social.

At 23, he thought it was best to practice the strange act of hugging.

A serious girlfriend, the bubbly, camera-friendly Sanni McCandless, complicates things, and as climbing legend Tommy Caldwell reminds us of the near-total mortality rate for free soloists, Honnold matter-of-factly debates any “obligation to maximize my life span.”

This is merely one contrast in a film of many. Even the filmmakers, committed as they are to the project, question the affect their very presence might have on Honnold’s decision-making. It’s all never less than compelling.

But in contrasting glorious human achievement with acceptable sacrifice, Free Solo becomes nearly unforgettable.