Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Starring: Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless
Run Time: 1h 40min
4 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
What a cliff-hanger! Okay… I’m sorry but I had to say it. However, that’s exactly what Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, is! A guy who climbs and literally hangs on cliffs. What was most frightening to watch was how he doesn’t use a rope or even hang by a thread! He’s literally free of anything but a few tools he might need along the way. Like an insect crawling up a wall, Alex scurries up the side of a mountain as if he was meant to be there. Myself, I do like to hike but prefer a nice, safe, well-traveled trail, not to take the risks Alex likes to take. One little slip, just one little mistake, and Alex is a memory.
Of climbing, Alex says, ‘I don’t wanna fall off and die either but there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. You can’t make a mistake. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. It does feel good to be perfect, like, for a brief moment.’ And realizing he comes across as cold when he says it, he does believe it and says it anyway, ‘If I kill myself… life goes on.’ Well, I guess we all have to die sometime, right?
This is a terrifying watch but an intensely gripping watch at the same time. In fact, there may be moments where you have to turn your head, as the cameraman shooting the documentary does several times. What Alex achieves is nothing short of spectacular and this is your chance to witness history as closely as you would if you were hanging on the side of the mountain with him.
Alex has traveled everywhere while hiking and climbing but rare are the people who let you join them in this manner if at all. It takes great skill and concentration to accomplish a climb such as this and the last thing you need is a camera crew to distract you. However, this crew is made up of climbers, as well, and they know the dangers and liabilities of not only getting in his head space but getting in his path. The crew gets to know his movements by watching him plan and practice his route and they organize themselves way ahead of time. They take every precaution they can to see that they are not a variable in what he is about to tackle.
We, learn his path the names of the routes, too. He’s ascending the mountain, El Capitan in Yosemite, CA. Never before has anyone climbed it without using the safety of a rope and this film is about Alex’s journey to be the first. Along the way, we discover his past, what and how he eats, how he prepares, how he has changed and what climbing El Capitan, Free Solo, means to him. He explains that he’s obsessed with reaching this goal and that for him it’s not any different than winning a gold medal in the Olympics is for an Olympian. Forgive me for saying but an instant freefall to your death doesn’t generally come with the territory in the Olympic games, but I understand what he means.
Outside of the final climb, what I found most intriguing was watching him with his new girlfriend, Sanni. He said a girlfriend wasn’t in the cards because she could never be as important to him as climbing. In fact, new in the relationship, he falls twice and injures himself badly. Is she the ultimate cause? How she factors into things is exciting and how he handles it, what she’s willing to go through for love and if he can give enough of himself for love is compelling to watch. This is everything you’d want out of a documentary and then some. See ‘Free Solo.’ It’s an adrenaline rush. If you don’t catch it at the theatre, watch it at home but watch it on a big screen. You’re going to enjoy this documentary no matter the platform you choose to see it but there’s no replacing the feeling you get from viewing it at the theatre.
*SHOWING IN PHOENIX AT HARKINS SHEA 14