UK Release Date: 14th December 2018
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Starring: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni McCandless
Synopsis: A daredevil climber mounts a first-time ever attempt to scale the 3,000ft El Capitan cliff face in Yosemite National Park without any sort of harness or ropes, as a documentary film crew watches from the ground and from the summit.
I cannot divine the motivations driving Alex Honnold. He’s the central figure in the new documentary Free Solo and one of the most famed practitioners of the titular climbing discipline. Those who ‘free solo’ a cliff face decide to climb it alone without any ropes, harnesses or support of any kind. It’s just one person clinging to a sheet of rock by the tips of their fingers and toes and contorting their body in the most high-stakes game of Twister imaginable. Naturally, it’s a compelling subject for a documentary, if you can handle the tension.
Were his chosen life pursuits not so utterly barmy, Honnold is exactly the opposite of the sort of person a documentary crew would follow. He’s referred to by friends as Spock for his lack of emotions and, at one stage, he deadpans that “the movie will be better if I burst into tears”. When we meet him, he’s living in the van that carries him from cliff to cliff, eating chilli directly from the pan. Later, we see him buy a house with his long-term girlfriend. He still eats chilli from the pan.
Honnold is an unusual and inscrutable character and Free Solo doesn’t seem to have much interest in trying to understand him. Other than a brief and intriguing interlude to take a look at his brain – his amygdala doesn’t respond to normal stimulation and craves more, apparently – there’s very little examination of why Honnold chooses to climb. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are content to simply marvel at his achievements instead.
And, when the achievements are this huge, that’s understandable. Chin and Vasarhelyi follow Honnold as he prepares for the climb, scaling El Capitan with ropes dozens of times over several months in order to ensure he has chosen the correct path and to practice navigating the trickier portions of the route. The camera does a terrific job of establishing just how precarious this climbing is, showing how Honnold’s entire life could be in the balance based on the balance of his thumb, or the grip on his trainers, holding on to the tiniest variations in the rock. What Free Solo lacks in character detail, it makes up for in vertiginous terror.
No amount of psychological examination of Honnold could prepare viewers for the film’s final act, which sees carefully positioned cameras record his ascent of El Capitan. It’s a straight-up exercise in horror that recalls the finale of The Walk, except every sweaty-palmed viewer is fully aware they are watching a real person dicing with death. No amount of ‘they wouldn’t be showing the film like this if he died’ logic is able to suppress the unmitigated tension of this sequence. It’s in these scenes that Honnold himself becomes even more bizarre. While every viewer of Free Solo is barely able to watch through their white knuckles, he takes time to mug at the camera – 2,000 feet off the ground. He’s utterly barmy, but so is the experience of Free Solo. You don’t see many documentaries with this sort of power.
Pop or Poop?
With its focus on a bizarre and uncharismatic central character, Free Solo could easily have been a movie without an emotional heart. However, the directors are wise enough to know that the inherent danger of imminent death provides that core. The final half an hour of this movie is a masterclass in tension, delivered through absolutely stunning camera work.
Or at least I assume it was stunning. I could barely watch.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.