Movie Review: Free Solo

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Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

Kim Nicholson reviews a film that is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Alex Honnold is an unlikely subject for a documentary film; uncharismatic and a little dead behind the eyes. Yet his story is gripping in every sense of the word. The name Free Solo refers to the practice of climbing alone and unassisted – no ropes, no safety nets and nothing but your fingertips to cling to the rocks. The smallest mistake can send climbers plummeting to their deaths.  The film follows Honnold as he prepares for his attempt to become the first person to climb El Capitan, a 3,000 ft sheer rock face in Yosemite Valley, entirely rope free.

Whilst Honnold is a relatively closed off character, the fact that the documentary is filmed by Jimmy Chin and other close friends from his climbing circle gives you what is likely to be a much more intimate insight into his life than if the film was made by anyone else, although I use the term intimate loosely. The climbing expertise of the crew also allows them to film breath-taking scenery from dizzying heights. The skilled camera work captures the fragility of human life up against the most awe-inspiring nature, evoking a sense of the sublime.

Amongst Honnold’s insular group of friends is fellow climber, Tommy Caldwell, whose own story is equally as captivating. Caldwell is the subject of another documentary film, Dawn Wall, which follows his ascent up a 3,000 ft rock of the same name – a feat that required him to live on the sheer cliff face for weeks. Although his climb involved ropes, it gripped the world as much as Honnold’s free solo attempt, and, as a character, Caldwell is utterly endearing. Anyone seeking out a climbing documentary that also delivers on human interest should watch Dawn Wall.

Filmmaker, Jimmy Chin, moving into position to shoot the Enduro Corner on El Capitan. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic/Cheyne Lempe)

At the other end of the spectrum, Honnold likens his intense physical and mental discipline to that of a samurai. His sole focus in life is El Capitan until, in classic boy-meets-girl style, Sanni McCandless walks into his life. At times, she is unfairly positioned as an obstacle to Honnold’s aspirations but perhaps this is to add some dynamism to his otherwise quite one-dimensional character.  Watching Honnold as he tries to reconcile his new role as boyfriend with his solitary endeavour to scale El Capitan is fascinating. He is on unfamiliar terrain, having become accustomed to thinking only of his free solo attempt. This is brought into sharp relief when, in one scene, McCandless becomes upset at the death of another free solo climber. As her thoughts turn towards the climber’s widow, Honnold becomes agitated and shuts the conversation down with the cutting remark, ‘Well, what did she expect?’

At times, Honnold’s coldness and indifference towards his new girlfriend is as painful to watch as the hairiest moments up El Capitan. It’s hard to know what’s more likely to survive – Honnold as he climbs thousands of feet without ropes, or his relationship with his girlfriend. Both are on a cliff edge!

Kim Nicholson is an art, food and film fiend. When she’s not out running, she can be found walking around art galleries or making a mess in the kitchen.