Documentaries are some of my favorite types of films and I’m often pleasantly surprised by documentary films that are based on subjects I have little to no knowledge of or frankly never had an interest in. One such recent documentary from directors Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is Free Solo which centers around free solo climber Alex Honnold & his quest to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall. What is free solo climbing you may ask? Well free climbing is a sport that involves climbing mountains or objects with absolutely no safety gear. No ropes, no parachute, no giant safety net. Now I’d heard of people who’ve participated in this extreme sport but to see it depicted throughout this film in such a vertigo inducing manner is simply breathtaking.
The film follows Alex & his quest to be the first person to free climb the El Capitan Wall, which is some 3,000 feet above terra firma. We’re introduced to young Alex as a very isolated individual who lives out of a retrofitted van that he eats, sleeps and trains in. He drives to different locations to map out his strategy before then free climbing them. His seems like a very lonely existence, Alex has friends (also other climbers) and has had girlfriends in the past, but shockingly none of them have lasted. His choice in life is to commit himself to his passion of free climbing and nothing can deter him or stand in his way. His sort of holy grail or obsession if you will is conquering El Capitan.
As the film scurries along we get introduced to “The Wall” as a sort of character itself. It holds the personality of being stunningly beautiful but also at the same time razor sharp in its dangerous curves & challenges. The film does a great job of establishing the way free climbers look at their task, by describing how a climber would navigate through it, mark it, and decide on the best choices to make when practicing the run. The cinematography is simply breathtaking, although if you have a fear of heights or any form of vertigo, this film may not be for you.
One of the things that I was so taken with is the precision of the climber’s moves. The way they’re able to use their fingers and toes the gain leverage on minuscule areas is fascinating. The climber’s control of their body is in a sense perfect, and Alex even explains at one point in the film that this is the closest to a human being perfect, since one mistake will most likely result in the ultimate failure, death.
In the second act we’re introduced to a sort of wildcard in this adventure, Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. We’re told of their meeting while Alex is promoting a book and also given a glimpse into the challenges of being Alex’s girlfriend. Alex is a conventional person, but like he’s described his previous relationships, this is the reason for their eventual collapse. Like most significant others, Sanni cares deeply for Alex & would like the relationship to progress, but Alex’s communication skills are lacking, his focus is on climbing and the risks he takes with free climbing take their toll on Sanni. To hear him describe if he were to die on a climb, that life would just move on eventually may be true, but it’s also a very sad look at ones life and the impact you and ultimately your death, may have on others.
In another chilling part of the film, the crew, which is made up of other climbers & Alex’s friends, describe renowned climber’s deaths while practicing free climbing. As we get closer to the climax of the film, the thought of how incredibly dangerous this sport is makes the stakes as high as they can get. Not to mention that Sanni’s involvement with Alex seems to affect his focus, which is maybe the number one mental tool needed for free climbing. On two separate occasions as they climb together, Alex suffers some pretty serious injuries to his foot. It’s mentioned by one of the crew that they are very concerned since Alex has a reputation for never getting injured, let alone twice in such a short period of time. I found myself wanting for Alex to distance himself from Sanni, at least until his mission was complete, for the sake of his well-being and hers.
Eventually in the third and strongest act of the film, Alex attempts the climb with the crew documenting it through all its stages. Again the camera work is second to none and you really do feel like you’re right next him as he makes this incredible journey.
The human will is an intriguing part of life. We rarely know our full potential and sometimes it’s only when we’re tested that we see what we’re truly made of. This film, like another of my favorite documentaries, Man On Wire, is the ultimate testament to who we truly are as human beings. Flawed but capable of great achievements when called upon. Free Solo is an inspirational, touching and unforgettable story of why we live life and why some of us feel compelled to reach for the stars.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
Free Solo is on limited release in the US and other territories now.