Free Solo (2018)
A documentary about climbing solo up sheer vertical cliffs without safety ropes sounds too crazy-masculine to contain a gentle story of emotional awakening. While Free Solo (2018) celebrates athletic triumph it is also a thoughtful essay on mortality, fear, and self-identity, as it probes into the heart and mind of an elite athlete in an extreme sport.
By his mid-30s, Alex Honnold had achieved a world-class reputation for solo climbing, but despite his achievements, he was taunted by the unconquered El Capitan cliff face of Yosemite National Park. Together with an expert team of photographer climbers, he sets about the rigorous physical and mental preparation for the 3000 feet ascent. For most of the film, we watch him planning and repeatedly climbing El Capitan with safety gear, while documenting every single step and manoeuvre needed for what would be an historic free solo to the top.
While this simple, linear narrative is predictable from the outset, the photography and character study are sublime. Panoptic drones capture close-ups of Alex on vertical granite walls, showing breathtaking toeholds in tiny recesses that barely grip. During the arduous preparation, Alex has an MRI scan that reveals an inert amygdala…a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Coming from a broken home and obsessed in his pursuit of climbing perfection, Alex has no fear and is emotionally closed. The only fear shown in the film is felt by his crew who must mentally rehearse the possibility that they will witness a close friend’s death. The hitherto accident-free athlete enters a relationship with the emotionally warm, wise, and beautiful Sanni McCandless, and for the first time he experiences fall injuries.
With an easy broad smile, wide eyes, and vulnerable humility, Alex is a very likeable young man. His blossoming relationship with Sanni unfolds with childlike simplicity and growing emotional responsibility, while they are both aware that free soloing El Capitan means Alex will always be one slip from certain death. This fly-on-the-wall documentary eavesdrops on a few private moments to reveal a dilemma: Alex’s dormant emotional self is being stirred, but he must overcome it to face what is a super-human challenge.
Some viewers will notice the unbounded selfishness required to put others through the stress of Alex’s personal pursuit while he is relatively free from the constraints of human emotion. Others will see Alex as a heroic protagonist in his own tortured life journey, or maybe wonder what bravery means if one feels no fear. No doubt there are other viewpoints and readings of this film. Regardless of what message you take, this is a riveting story, brilliantly filmed amongst some of the most stunning mountain scenery you will ever see.
Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Cast: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell