What does it take to be the best at what you do? It’s a question asked of artists, business moguls, politicians—of everyone, really. There’s no doubt that you have to sacrifice to be among the elite: working 15 hour days, practicing in endless training sessions, never giving in to weaknesses, always striving towards perfection. Most people can’t do it and it can be heartbreaking to watch as adolescents and young adults give up on their dreams of being a great guitarist or dancer or singer. Sometimes, that diminution of desire leads to maturity but oftentimes, it also leads to regret.
But what happens to those who dedicate themselves to be the greatest and then that crazy unpredictable thing called life calls everything into question? Two of the best docs of the year, Free Solo and Transformer, profile athletes who have achieved greatness and now question their motivations.
Alex Honnold, the astonishingly successful mountain climber in Free Solo, is a risk taker, who isn’t content to ascend great heights with ropes and professional assistance. He prefers going “free solo,” without any help, while conquering the highest peaks, knowing that one mistake would lead to a plunge to death. He’d ascended Zion’s Moonlight Buttress in Utah, the Grade V route El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico, Squamish’s University Wall and the U.K.’s Complete Scream before attempting the previously unassailable El Capitain in Yosemite National Park. But when he took on El Capitain, Honnold found himself confronted for the first time with human concerns: he was in the midst of a passionate relationship—unique in his experience—with a lovely and extremely personal woman, Sannie McCandless, and he knew that the film of his life challenging climb was being made by a very close friend, Jimmy Chin. The film asks if those intimate factors will affect his climb.
Janae Marie Kroczaleski, the protagonist of Transformer, used to be adored by sports fans as Matt Kroc, the indisputably best weightlifter in his size and height category. Matt had been a high school football star, a Marine and a married man, with three boys, before he finally admitted who he wanted to be: a woman. His wife left him as did many of his fans, when he was outed on Youtube as being transgender in 2015. (The film offers no explanation why that occurred, which would have been helpful to know.)
Director Michael Del Monte shows the conflicts in Janae’s life as she struggles to decide how far she should go physically as she shifts from being perceived as male to female. Her insecurity, which goes back to her teenage years when “Matt” used to fantasize about being a cheerleader instead of a football player, makes it hard to imagine losing the impressive male part of her identity. Turning into a woman means losing muscles and pounds-–armour that has always protected her. The sweetest thing in Janae/Matt’s life is that the three sons still adore their father; their scenes together, particularly one in which the four jump along ice chunks on a Michigan river while they throw snow balls at each other, is beautifully captured.
Matt Kroc and Alex Honnold are—-or were—elite athletes, quantifiably the best at what they do. At the height of their achievements, they devoted their bodies and souls to nothing else. Kroc—Matt and the future Janae—had obvious personal reasons to be the greatest weight lifter in his category. Honnold’s story is less clear but Chin’s doc allows us some insights. Raised in California, satirized as the huggiest state in the Union, Alex admits that his family never embraced each other. It was Sannie, his girlfriend, who he dismisses early on as “cute and small” enough to fit into the trailer he’s been living in for nine years, who changes him. She turns this emotionally stunted individual into someone who says personal things to her and even ends up buying a house for them in Las Vegas.
Transformer and Free Solo are films about two athletes who achieve greatness and then start living in reality. Ironically, we wouldn’t be interested in either of them had they not been terrific at what they did. Yet we wouldn’t be rooting for them if they didn’t break free from their hermetic existence and embrace the real world in all of its messy complexity.
Both of these films are absolutely worth seeing. In Transformer, we actually encounter an evolution in someone’s life: if that isn’t dramatic, I don’t know what is. And in Free Solo, we see extraordinary shots of adventure in nature that are true to the National Geographic style while also witnessing one of the triumphs in mountain climbing history.