Search This Blog

Saturday 6 April 2019

Free Solo, Documentary Film (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 8.5* of 10

Besides showing some spectacular nature and rock-climbing sequences, Free Solo paints the portrait of Alex Honnold, the best rock free-climber in the world at the pinnacle of his death-defying athletic and cognitive achievement. The psychological insights into Honnold and those close to him are as intriguing as his incredible athleticism in a discipline where any small misstep or misgrip means almost certain death.

At 33 years of age, the rock climber Alex Honnold belongs to the 1% of top climbers who risk their lives with every move they make: free-climbers do not use ropes or any other equipment that might prevent or mitigate a fall. A documentary film making team, itself consisting of experienced climbers, followed Honnold during his preparation and attempt to free-climb the 975m (3200 ft) El Capitan rock in Yosemite National Park, California. 

This results in the spectacular nature and climbing photography one would expect from a National Geographic documentary. What makes Free Solo stand out, however, is the portrait it paints of Honnold, his unusual personality and how it impacts on the way he handles himself and the relationships with those close to him. There is his mother the extremely demanding French teacher, his late father a compulsive world traveller. There is a youth with any warm physical contact, without any hugs. He explains in the most matter of fact tone, how he taught himself to hug in his twenties. It sounds like the way he trains a challenging climbing move. 

And there’s his recent girlfriend Sanni MacCandless. He describes her as someone whose goal it is to have a cozy and happy life. This baffles him. Cozy and happy is fine but it doesn’t achieve anything. Sanni manages to make Alex Honnold come out of his shell a bit; fortunately for both, she appreciates the brutal honesty with which he answers her questions about their relationship. “Would putting me into the equation actually ever change anything?” she asks. “No,” he answers. “But I appreciate your concerns.” Yet one wonders. Is Honnold’s shell not an armour he needs to be able to complete his death-defying climbing feats and will his relationship make chinks in it? His friend the climber Tommy Caldwell, himself a family man, certainly seem to think so. Clearly, being in a relationship makes some aspects of climbing more difficult, but intriguingly, although he’s clear that climbing comes first in everything he does, Honnold seems to know a good woman when he has one. 

Besides showing some spectacular nature and rock-climbing sequences, Free Solo paints the portrait of many complex personalities and their interactions with each other. This includes the team of experienced climbing documentary film-makers  Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and their talented team of filmers/climbers, who cannot be emotionally detached from their seemingly cool as a cucumber protagonist. Despite the use of climbing ropes and other mountaineering equipment their work and risk-taking are anything but unspectacular. And so are the results.

The last 20 minutes of Free Solo show the pinnacle of athletic achievement; as Honnold puts it it’s like entering the Olympics on the basis that you either get the gold medal or you die. Together with the insight the filmmakers give us into Alex Honnold's personality and entourage this a highly entertaining and thought-provoking documentary going far beyond the subject of high-performance rock climbing into psychology and life philosophy. Free Solo is an entertaining and riveting documentary to watch on the edge of your seat. Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment