Released 2018. Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
IF YOU HAVE A FEAR OF HEIGHTS, FREE SOLO MIGHT MAKE YOU DIZZY. This documentary is about mountain climbing, but not the kind you might expect. This is climbing without ropes, without support, using only your own hands and feet. Hence it’s called free solo. Sounds crazy scary?
More remarkably, our hero Alex Honnold plans to be the first person to free solo El Capitan. Rising from the Yosemite Valley in California, El Capitan is a towering granite monolith, a sheer cliff face over 3,000 feet high. Straight up, imposing, daunting. A free solo attempt is like a suicide attempt.
The scenic environment of Yosemite National Park lends itself to amazing cinematography. Under the direction of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, their fearless crew captures stunning footage high off the ground. Cameramen strapped to ropes climb alongside Alex, which has to be a nightmare for insurance and occupational safety. When the view leans over the top edge of the summit and peers downwards, it’s a heart-stopping vertiginous view.
Whether he’s on the rock face or on the ground, Alex is an open and candid subject in this documentary that lays bare his singular focus. Why does he want to do it? One could well ask why any athlete trains himself or herself in extreme sport. For most of the time it takes to follow his journey on free solo, Alex lives in a van. He eats straight from his saucepan with a spatula. Alex is a regular guy without a hint of vanity, even though his climbing achievement obviously makes him a magazine-cover celebrity in the field. Alex talks about his childhood, his parents and introduces us to his girlfriend, whose prominent presence also helps us understand Alex a little better. Meanwhile, you could feel the giant shadow of El Capitan loom over every aspect of his life.
There are two forces at work here. The immovable El Capitan exerting its attraction on the elite climber; and Alex himself, drawn to El Capitan with an obsession that is meticulous and all-consuming. To climb El Capitan with his bare hands is something elementary and natural, something that gives Alex a sense of purpose. Alex makes copious notes of his practice climbs. No detail escapes him. Every dimple on the rock face, every thumb press, every toe hold, every crack – his life depends on the full mapping of precisely where he needs to place his fingers and toes.
Watching Alex make the climactic ascent is full of suspense. Stretching, bending, reaching, holding on with fingers and a pair of sturdy shoes, Alex slowly scales the height, one cautious manoeuvre followed by another. A perfect balance of body and mind, like a dance on a vertical stage. An ultimate physical manifestation of consummate skills and absolute mental discipline. Hats off to Alex and the crew – you deserve your Oscar for Best Documentary.