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Reviews

Oct 31, 2018

Free Solo: This Portrait of Alex Honnold, is so Much More Than Just a Climbing Film

How do you offer a balanced film review, when it's one of the best documentary's that you have ever seen?

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin worked with National Geographic to produce hands-down, the best climbing movie that I have seen.

But, to be honest, this is not really a climbing film. Ok, well, it is a climbing film… but there is so much more to it than that.

Photo: National Geographic

The film’s plot is centered around a single climb that Alex Honnold is preparing for. El Capitan’s 3,000 vertical-foot rock face in Yosemite, California. Solo. No rope. No safety net. Simply him and the rock.

To put this into perspective, for anyone who isn’t a die-hard rock climber, and can’t relate to this feat… imagine climbing a ladder twice the size of the Empire State Building. But instead of the ladder having nice, big rungs to hold onto, it has pebbles jutting out one centimeter (or less) that you are expected to rest your feet and hands on. Oh, and making a mistake, falling, is simply not an option.

The whole film leads up to the suspense of this one climb. Will Alex be successful? Will he complete the climb and become the first person to ever free solo the famous El Capitan? Or will he make a mistake and plummet to his death?

Spoiler alert! Alex is still alive today. We all knew that the worst wasn’t going to happen. However, despite knowing that Alex is still alive today. Despite being aware that he had already completed the climb, my palms were so sweaty, I could barely grip the pencil that I was using to jot notes down for this review.

Even the seemingly very masculine man sitting next to me in the theater was falling into his seat with anticipation. He kept sinking further and further, at first I thought he was falling asleep, but when I looked next to me to check, he was gripping the armrest so hard his knuckles were turning white.

Read about Alex Honnold’s Free Solo climb up El Capitan here.

Rock climber Alex Honnold completes a 3,000-foot rope-free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2017. The historic event was documented for an upcoming National Geographic feature film and magazine story. Photo credit: Jimmy Chin/ National Geographic

So, how did Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do it? How is it possible that even though I already knew the outcome of the plot, I was still so torn with suspense and anticipation that I experienced physical symptoms (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat) of anxiety?

The videography was superb. Every shot, every angle, every pan was thoroughly well thought-out. The crew was comprised of professional climbers with rope access skills beyond that which I am able to comprehend. Each camera on the wall was there because someone either climbed up the rock face to place it there, or rappelled down from the summit so they could dangle on a rope 3,000 feet in the air, for hours on end, in order to get the shot.

Even the soundtrack contributed to the suspense. Similar to any Hollywood-style movie, epic music would ring loud when a feat had been accomplished. When the story became tense, so would the music.

The production aside, the most exhilarating aspect of the film was the character development. It was a glimpse into the mind of a seemingly super-human individual. A mind that us mere mortals can only ponder about, but never empathize with or relate to. Alex’s emotional capacity is similar to that of his father, who as it turns out, had a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, a syndrome which tends to run in families. The film was a view into the relationship between Alex, this robot-like individual, and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who is a seemingly strong-minded woman with a normal capacity for emotion. Their relationship dynamic is what separates this film from every other climbing movie out there.

With Alex’s inability to empathize with Sanni’s feelings, and Sanni’s attempts to understand Alex’s mind, the question comes up of how a relationship like this could work? But they make it work… and this is one of the most beautiful plot lines I have seen in an adventure film.

If I say much more I will risk giving away the entire film. So I will stop and just say that If you are a die-hard rock climber, you should go to see this film.
If you have only rock climbed once in your life, you should go to see this film.
If you have seen a rock climbing gym and considered going in, but not done so, you should go to see this film.
If you have never even considered going rock climbing, and probably never will, you should still go to see this film.

Find a theatre near you that is showing Free Solo, on the National Geographic website.