Free Climbing Documentary Scales Great Heights
DIRECTED BY ELIZABETH CHAI VASARHELYI AND JIMMY CHIN/2018
Despite some kids asking me if this was a sequel to the latest Star Wars film, Solo, the latest documentary to hit the screen is an interesting one from National Geographic that looks at Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb El Capitan’s 3,000 foot high wall in Yosemite National Park, with no ropes or safety gear. This is what is meant by the film’s title, Free Solo, when a solo climber takes to the rock, or the mountain, and climbs it free of anything that might provide some protection from the dangers that are inherent in such endeavors. A loose rock, a bird that suddenly emerges from a hidden nest, weather, or simply loosing one’s grip are all things that could create havoc for a climber, especially when that climber has not safety net to speak of such as ropes, cams, or harnesses. While it might make for some edge of your seat suspense, Free Solo remembers that what is at stake isn’t for our entertainment, but the very life of its protagonist, climber Alex Honnold.
Already in limited release, Free Solo is scoring very well in its per screen average, and I believe it is because you are witnessing an individual attempt something so dangerous, that has never been attempted successfully before. As the film starts out, we are introduced to Alex. We see some clips of him doing his thing sans safety gear, and we hear him speak to various groups, including schools, about the reason for doing what he does. He discusses cost and risk, alongside reward, of why anyone does anything. He defends his death-defying acts as logically as possible by stating that everyone dies, but knowing that what he does has a high risk, it forces him to be even more careful and alert in his preparation and attempts, thus making it safer for him than someone who is just an adrenaline junkie going for the thrill of it all. While he factually acknowledges to another climber how many people they have known in their peer circles who have fallen to their death pursuing this love of free soloing, it doesn’t in any way diminish their love of doing it, nor curb their attempt to do it more.
What makes this documentary stand out is that we get to know a lot of Alex’s background as it relates to his family and the effect of the interpersonal relationships that exist there. As you watch Alex robotically face fear, with very little emotion, and see that carry over even to his view on relationships, you have a greater understanding of possibly why Alex’s calm demeanor is able to give him the ability to handle the inherent dangers associated with his climbs. It also makes you want to fully and empathetically embrace the emotions that are felt by his girlfriend Sanni McCandless, as she starts off being seen by him as a possible hindrance to what he does, to becoming more of an anchor in his life that might just give him the support he needs to face this daunting challenge.
Alex has been thinking about the climb for some time and he takes Sanni with him to climb El Capitan using ropes and gear. She is not a very experienced climber, we are told, and her inexperience is seen as the reason why Alex has 2 accidents within a few months that causes him a pretty severe ankle sprain. As we watch a 30-foot fall cause some serious pain to Alex, we can’t help wondering how he will ever attempt the impossible of doing this while free soloing. He almost breaks up with her over the incident, but it turns out that she is a stronger support system for Alex than he realizes.
Another thing that separates Free Solo from other documentaries is how involved the director of the film, Jimmy Chin, is with this whole thing. We don’t just see through the lens of Jimmy, and his co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, as a neutral observer. Jimmy is a climbing buddy of Alex, along with several of the cameramen. This isn’t just a documentation of an incredible feat, but an event that may cause them to either cause them to contribute to, or at least be a witness to, their dear friend’s death. Will there presence on the mountain as he climbs create distractions that lead to such a mistake, or will they be forced to gaze through the very lenses they are operating as they witness a 3,000-foot fall that Alex wouldn’t be able to come back from? The last 2o minutes of the film will provide the answers you are looking for, and serve as some of the most tense I’ve experienced while watching a documentary just because of how high the stakes are for Alex in this life or death moment.
Free Solo provides amazing scenery, an exciting subject-matter, along with a tense event with real life or death stakes on the line. It is also supported by a true love story that is developing alongside this pursuit for the impossible which gives the viewer an attachment to the characters themselves, especially for a tragedy that is experienced prior to Alex’s big attempt. For those who have a fear of heights, don’t worry, there aren’t many shots that are trying to make you feel like you are personally 3,000 feet in the air, though there may be a few that provide that context at times. Free Solo is a film that, like its subject, tries to accomplish great heights with very little safety nets in place. It may display the high risks of free soloing, but the viewer feels the rewards.
Free Solo expands this weekend, opening in several markets, such as Houston, Texas.