Film Review – Free Solo

Honnald’s Heart-Stopping Climb Creates Cinema Gold

Can you remember exactly what you were doing on the morning of June 3 2017?
Chances are you weren’t climbing up the side of 3000-foot mountain without a rope.

For most of us it was just another ordinary day.

But for professional rock climber Alex Honnold, June 3 2017 was anything but ordinary. It was the day he accomplished what many have called, “The most impressive athletic achievement in the history of humankind”.

Free Solo, directed by husband and wife duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, tells the remarkable story of how Honnald, 33, famous for his spider-like ability to climb up towering, vertiginous cliffs without any safety harness, became the first person ever to free-solo (climb without a rope), El Capitan, a 900 metre (that’s two empire state buildings) granite monolith in California’s, Yosemite National Park.

His ascent, which takes the average climber several days to complete, took a total of 3 hours and 56 minutes. But in reality free-soloing El Cap entailed years of physical training and psychological preparation.

El capitan

This 1 hour and 40 minute documentary will have you spellbound, not only from the sheer impressiveness of Honnald’s feat but through the way in which Vasarhelyi and Chin unveil the man behind the media storm. In an interview with Vanity Fair Chai revealed: “We were always more interested in Alex as a character study, then a free soloist.”

To explore the inner workings of Alex’s world we are invited inside the van in which he lives, cooks and exercises and into his often-tense relationship with girlfriend Sannie McCandless. By interweaving the narratives of both Sannie and his mother into the story, the film breaks away from the conventions of this typically masculine genre, going from a run-of-the-mill climbing documentary into a touching and personal story of a boy who never really felt loved.

Today Alex has made a reputation for himself as one of the world’s most daring climbers, due largely to an innate lack of fear. In one scene he undergoes an MRI revealing that his amygdala (the part of the brain that feels fear) doesn’t react to frightening stimulus like the average persons.

That is not to say he is some reckless daredevil with a death wish. In fact he is the exact opposite of spontaneous, meticulously rehearsing, calculating and memorizing his every move.

Walking us through every stage of the climb, we learn that the appropriately named ‘Boulder Problem’, a section of exposed rock about 700 metres off the ground, is El Cap’s most challenging pitch. To scale this section Alex must do a “karate kick, placing his left foot onto the inside of an adjacent corner, a maneuverer requiring both flexibility and total precision. Just one false move or miscalculation and its all over. The scene is so terrifying that the filmmakers had to hire another camera crew just to film the main camera crew, in order to capture their reactions. There’s a significant moment when he makes the terrifying leap and looking straight into the camera, offers up a cheeky grin, as if he knows that he’s just made history.

But really it’s Free Solo’s groundbreaking cinematography that puts the documentary into a class of its own. Sweeping panoramas and sweat inducing close ups taken by professional climbers / cameramen who were dispersed precariously across the rock, allow the viewer to truly grasp the magnitude of what he is accomplishing.

This is ultimately what makes the film so captivating. The way it blends breath-taking cinematography with an emotive and relatable human story. This is not just a film just about climbing but about the importance of taking risks. That’s not to say we should all be hanging from the edges of cliffs by our fingernails, but perhaps occasionally getting out of our comfort zone is enough. Says Honnald: “Nothing great is ever achieved when you’re happy and cosy.”

Honnald at the Trento Film Festival, 2014.

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