Dust particles tumble from Alex Honnold’s fingertips. Suspended by desire alone, his thin body twists in the wind, a silhouette hanging over a mind-numbing high mountain drop. This isn’t the opening stunt to some action movie. This is real life and it doesn’t come with a safety net. The reason why? Alex is climbing “free solo”.
You got a head for heights?
Done without ropes or support, free solo climbers scale razorblade-edged cliff-faces on sheer grip and determination alone. One of the few surviving climbers left in this niche sport, Alex is both an inspiration to school-kids but also a concern to those closer.
As directing team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s documentary shows, in Alex’s singular, nomadic approach to life nothing is wasted. Everything is pared down to the barest essentials. From food to living arrangements to personal attachments, everything is weighed and measured. Nothing but nothing can be allowed to cloud his focus. However as he attempts to climb his lifelong dream of free solo-ing Yosemite park’s dangerous El Capitain, another challenge has come into view: new girlfriend Sanni McCandless.
In a documentary that sticks as close to its subject on the ground as it does when he’s spanning fissures in the air, ‘Free Solo’ is an unpretentious portrait of a cool head clouded by competing desires. Sandwiched in between its dizzying visuals and jaw-dropping heights, Alex’s closeted emotions are under siege. And in this regard, this Oscar-winning commendably manages neither let go of their subject or the risks he’s taking.
With both Sanni and the film crew trying to suppress their fears that either might be the fatal distraction that kills both Alex and his attempt, the closing weather window further piles on the pressure onto a maverick climber who’s starting to make mistakes.
Both Gripping and sensitively handled, this superior documentary demands the biggest screen you can find. With the production crew taking the same high-wire risks as Alex, ‘Free Solo’s’ visuals are ones will stay with you for a long time as will the choices Alex must make.