Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Renowned climber Alex Honnold is, at first glance, your typical extreme-sports type; gangly, obsessive, prodigiously selfish and prone to describing himself as “stoked”. This film, made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in partnership with expert aerial cinematographer Jimmy Chin, documents Honnold. It acts as a character portrait, framed around his brave/foolhardy attempt to free climb the 3,000ft face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park; generally revered as one of the toughest ‘walls’ in the game. In case you’re not hip to the lingo, free soloing means no ropes, no safety gear at all. Just Alex and his focus and abilities. One false move and its over in the severest of ways.
For an hour, Free Solo asks what makes a person want to attempt such a thing. Alex admits to an upbringing which, while loving, wasn’t renowned for its familial intimacy. He had to teach himself to hug at the age of twenty or so. Free soloists work, as the moniker suggests, alone. And as a rule they don’t tell their loved ones what they’re up to. And that makes sense. What could distract you more than knowing someone else is intensely worried about you? But the isolationist aspect of the endeavour also speaks to Alex’s mindset and what comforts him. Over the course of the filmmaking, Vasarhelyi charts his deepening relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless. Alex isn’t used to making such strong connections and it shows. He sometimes seems more threatened by the prospect of emotional availability than he does falling to his death.
Because of just how dangerous Alex’s goal is, Free Solo becomes curiously self-reflexive, adding another dimension to proceedings. Co-director and expert climber Jimmy Chin frequently appears in front of the camera, even submitting on occasion to formal interview, as the documentarians start to question the ethics of making the movie at all. What are they getting out of watching Alex? And how does their observing directly affect their subject? That old uncertainty principle kicks in. Should Alex slip from El Capitan on camera, to what degree are Chin and Vasarhelyi culpable? And what of us in the audience? What, exactly, are our expectations?
This adds a mirroring aspect to the film that is more interesting than its duder hero. Camera placement becomes critical, for instance. You can feel the torn impulses. Respect Alex’s need for distance or risk not getting the shot. And observing this subject does change him. Chin grows concerned for minor adjustments in Alex’s attitude. Not nervousness exactly, but cracks in the armour. Free Solo is as much about the principles of filming as it is about filming something. It is about looking.
Alex is openly a friend of the filmmakers, and as such there’s a mild but present sense that he isn’t being interrogated as much as he could be. He is painted as an inspirational figure, albeit one living under a self-prescribed cloud. He describes himself as having a dark mind. A visit to the hospital for a fun MRI is all well and good, but it feels like a stunt or even a deflection and efforts to further pry into what makes him tick are abandoned for the very real fear of negatively impacting his climb.
When it comes to his journey up the face of El Capitan, however, Free Solo is as tense an experience as one might find in a cinema this year. An attempt that takes place over four hours is chiselled down in the edit to around 20 minutes of screen time. But with the film’s crew going through the wringer just watching – and Vasarhelyi choosing to watch the watchers – it is more than enough squirm time to sate viewers. Chin and his crew bring us an array of vertiginous angles on Alex, while Yosemite National Park does the rest.
Do the film’s inquiries actually lead anywhere? It’s a tough call. The filmmakers have acted responsibly here, stressing to any would-be novices how tough and dangerous free soloing is. And though their portrait of Alex is flattering, he still comes off as someone curiously predisposed to being able to do this, and that isn’t always a compliment. Free Solo is a mixture of jaw-drop nature photography, documentary ethics and fist-bumping bro culture. You can let go of the arm rests now.