Alex Honnold attempts to become the first person to ever free solo climb El Capitan.
‘Free Solo’, the winner of this year’s ‘Best Documentary Feature’ award at the Oscars is a film capturing one man’s attempt to climb to the summit of El Capitan without any equipment to aid on the way. That man is Alex Honnold, a rock climber and free soloist driven to take on bigger climbing challenges, often putting his life in grave danger. I’d never heard of free soloing before reading (and watching) about this documentary and to a mere mortal like myself it seems like an utterly mental hobby/career given the dangers involved, and indeed the film references numerous climbers who have died whilst attempting these challenges. Directed by climber turned filmmaker Jimmy Chin and his partner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the film sets out to not only capture Honnold’s momentous achievement, but to get inside the psyche of what drives someone to get involved in such an activity.
This is a really well made documentary that informs the audience about the activity it’s portraying, showing both the dangers and the wonder that inspires climbers to take on these challenges. We follow Honnold as he prepares for the El Capitan free climb, depicting the meticulous preparation that goes into such a feat from the athletic practices in Morocco to mapping out each and every tiny crevice on the El Capitan rock face. In an early scene, Honnold says everything needs to go perfectly to succeed, and by succeed, he means to not die as much as he means to conquer the challenge. The effect of this lifestyle on his girlfriend and his friends and colleagues are explored and we get an understanding of what it means to be part of this community. When we reach the El Capitan attempt itself the groundwork really comes to the fore as we watch Honnold scale the 3,000 feet monolith, leaving me as tense or as anxious as any fictional movie could achieve. The film is well paced with a dramatic score from Marco Beltrami to accompany the events portrayed on screen and I was gripped throughout every moment.
I’ll never fully understand why people take on these challenges but ‘Free Solo’ does as good a job as anything at attempting to explain what motivates these individuals. This is a truly breathtaking piece of cinema about a stunning accomplishment, one that should act as much as a warning as an inspiration to others who wish to attempt the same feat.
Directed By: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Starring: Alex Honnold