You have to see this in the cinema. Nothing compares to being crammed in with an audience, a soundscape of gasps and cringes surrounding you – one woman in front of me even put her hands out in a ‘how could you do this, think of your mother!’ style gesture. It was incredible.
In Free Solo, we follow professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s intensive journey as he prepares to free-climb El Capitan; an imposing 3000 foot rock formation in Yosemite National Park. To scale ‘free solo’ means to venture without any ropes or safety equipment – the only thing stopping you from falling being your own digits and quantity and quality of focus. The stakes are incomprehensibly high, as it truly is one misstep between “perfect execution and certain death” as co-director Jimmy Chin describes. Thus, this film naturally offers a riveting experience, proving just as nauseating as Phillipe Petit’s 2008 documentary Man on Wire, depicting Petit’s infamous tightrope walk between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. To sight these documentaries as comparable is justified by the extraordinary feats both men achieved in their respective fields; Petit’s was dubbed “the artistic crime of the century” and Honnold’s prompted The New Yorker to state, ‘another passage can be written in the annals of human achievement’. Free Solo is a masterclass in discipline and passion.
The cinematography is stunning, a notable image being during one of Alex’s practice climbs against Freestone in Yosemite; as he scales the rock, the immense waterfall gushing alongside him, a rainbow suddenly appears, sublimely cutting through the white foam and the wall. Tinged with fantasy, it could be a frame snapped from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. This is maintained throughout, the shots of Alex looming above acres of greenery being as majestic as they are dizzying, capturing the isolated serenity of free-soloing. However, grand-scale shots such as this are contrasted against the intimacy of seeing Alex’s chalk-covered fingertips make contact with the rock-face, tiny granite grains visible in extreme close-up. It’s this kind of detail that makes for an even more terrifying viewing experience, as though we’re watching a fictitious action-thriller play out before us. However, this is why documentary films are often even more satisfying and awe-inspiring, as it is the literal truth unfolding before you onscreen, you know there’s no special effects masking real danger.
However, Free Solo isn’t just a sport-documentary driven solely on the challenges of rock-climbing, but also a fascinating portrait of a unique individual. Meet Alex Honnold, endearingly awkward and brutally honest, he is disarmingly hilarious in his deadpan delivery of how he confronts and ultimately conquers risk. He’s extremely practical and almost callous when it comes to overcoming fear of death, however this approach is by no means foolish. He perceives this high risk as simply a consequence that may occur as a result of doing what he loves most, “it’s only dangerous if you fall off – just like driving’s only dangerous if you crash”. He’s no adrenaline junky or thrill-seeker, his precision and dedication to the craft of mastering this sport is truly inspiring. Despite being painfully shy during adolescence, preferring to free-solo rather than actually converse with strangers, he’s gone on to become, arguably one of the most charismatic personalities in current sport.
Another strand that comes with this character study is the insight into the bond with his girlfriend, Sanni. It offers some very touching moments as well as more humorous ones. However, it’s also rather bitter-sweet as we see their relationship tested consistently as Sanni often has to compromise with Alex, whose passion for free-soloing moves beyond the realms of a mere hobby. It’s a journey that depicts Alex not only competing against the climb itself, but also expectation and his own determination to succeed. Thus, it’s not just an account of a historically significant event but an intimately personal story that captures an example of mankind’s enduring drive to champion the extreme and the unknown. Having said this, the tone of Free Solo is tension-filled but refrains from being too oppressive, despite the looming atmosphere of danger throughout. Instead, it’s uplifting and captivating, a celebration of endeavour and living life to the full.
Co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin posed an interesting question when first embarking upon Free Solo: is it ethical to film someone as they risk their life? “Every journalist and documentary filmmaker goes into situations without knowing what happens next. This is the truth of non-fiction”. However, while ensuring they refrained from disrupting not only Alex’s safety during filming, but also his experience of actually climbing El Capitan, the production team of Free Solo managed to capture something truly organic and thus, spectacular.
Alex Honnold accomplishes jaw-dropping physical feats that make Tom Cruise’s death-defying stunts look like Bambi’s first steps. Free Solo is a glorious, thrilling documentary that not only contemplates personal challenges and momentous achievements, but also man’s relationship with nature; an alliance that should be founded on co-operation and appreciation, not dominance and disregard. Free Solo is a film for our times. After recently gaining a BAFTA nomination for Best Documentary Feature, here’s hoping the Oscars aren’t too far out of reach.
by Angel Lloyd
Angel Lloyd graduated from University of York in 2018 with a degree in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. Admittedly always felt like a traitor as film stole my heart long ago. Wish and hope to become a screenwriter/playwright. Graduated from BFI Scriptwriting Academy in 2015 and Northern Stars Documentary Academy in 2014. Much love and adoration for Carrie Fisher, Julie Taymor and Andrea Arnold. Soft spot for Baz Luhrmann glamour and Tim Burton wackiness. Favourite films include Withnail and I, Edward Scissorhands, Nowhere Boy and Moulin Rouge.