Whether it be physical or academic it is without a doubt that greatness and feats of greatness require a certain level of determination, mental grit and skill that very few are willing to foster within themselves. Alex Honnold however meets those qualities in the unlikeliest of ways in documentary/semi biopic Free Solo, a story of a man climbing El Capitan’s 3200 foot vertical rock face in Yosemite Park without any sort of safety net. A challenge that demands perfection or death.
A National Geographic picture directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) and photographer/mountaineer Jimmy Chin Free Solo takes a well rounded stab at tracking Honnold’s journey, from years of training, meticulous planning, insight into his psyche and the reflections of his closest friends and family. These include renowned climber Tommy Caldwell who’s extensive knowledge of El Capitan makes him the perfect training buddy and girlfriend Sanni McCandless who’s burgeoning relationship with Honnold threatens to derail his mission.
Honnold’s difficulties physically and mentally are almost matched by the logistics of filming around him in a manner which both captured the magnitude and grandeur of Yosemite’s conquered landscape whilst not interfering with the intense focus key to not plummeting to one’s own doom. Something which in and of itself is an awe inspiring marvel and a result of ingenuity and careful preparation almost fuelled by harrowing onus, as is apparent on Chin’s face, of not wanting to be responsible for your friend’s demise.
What makes this more about a guy climbing an impressive rock however, is the guy. Honnold breaks a mould in the sort of personality you’d expect of someone maybe more crazy than courageous enough to attempt such a feat. Rather than coming across as an overconfident risk taker, he is a realistic perfectionist who withdraws into himself and finds difficulty forming close bonds with others. It’s his quiet intelligence, borderline awkwardness, bluntness and dry sense of humour that gives him an immense engaging likeability that makes the whole process so watchable.
His description of the ‘Enduro Corner’ pitch of El Capitan as ‘an intense pilates session where you either have to hold the position or die’ or his even more frank takes on girlfriend McCandless ‘she’s small and cute and doesn’t take up much space and livens the place up a bit’ and self observations ‘I was never hugged growing up and I saw everyone else doing it and thought I should get in on that! So I practiced and now I think I’m a really good hugger’ not only leave the audience in fits of laughter but add a much welcomed lightness to an otherwise intense experience.
Free Solo is as nail biting, anxiety inducing and suspenseful as one would expect but also unexpectedly candid, quirky and heartfelt. Vasarhelyi and Chin have done a stellar job of diving into what motivates a person to do such a thing, explaining the intricacies of how challenging this is and adding heart and humour to what is a truly incredible story, in a very honest unflinching way.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Free Solo is in cinemas from January 24th, with advance screenings in the leadup. All details are HERE.