Upon first glance, one might believe that Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, is just your average adrenaline junkie with a death wish, but that could not be farther from the truth. Coming off a Best Documentary award at TIFF last month, this engaging documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Meru), showcases an exhilarating story about ambition, tenacity, and eccentricity.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, Free Soloing is exactly like rock climbing… minus the safety harness, ropes, or anything else protecting you from falling. Honnold has made a name for himself scaling climbs all over the world, and his white whale is to conquer El Capitan, Yosemite National Park’s kilometer-high formation, which is notorious for endangering the lives of those who dare to scale it unprotected, claiming two lives as recent as this past June.
Honnold is an interesting character himself. His somewhat emotionless demeanor and cheeky sense of humour, setting his priorities of “always [choosing] to climb over a lady,” does not make him the most attractive of subjects, although a few people do. One of them is Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend that really just serves as a form of tension for the documentary. Since she is very much an outsider in his circle, McCandless’ amateur climbing skills causes Honnold to suffer two falls while climbing together, causing minor setbacks in preparing for the El Cap run.
Moments like this humble Honnold, but it also puts into perspective how one mistake, like a slip or a missed hold on El Cap could cost him his life, but he doesn’t mind that. This is where the documentary becomes fascinating to watch, because it delves into the meticulous preparation, planning, production, and ethics of filmmaking this potentially fatal climb. Since free soloing is a very solitary experience for Honnold, he has to go over with Chin and his crew where to be positioned along El Cap’s Freerider route in order to provide the least amount of distraction for him.
Once we get around to the El Cap ascent in the last 25 minutes, we already know that Honnold is going to rise to the occasion and complete the climb, otherwise there would have buzz about it during TIFF. While writing this review, I actually came across an Omaze ad on Instagram with Honnold offering the winner to climb with him for the day at Yosemite, so there’s that. Not that it matters anyways. The suspense is still intense regardless.
The camerawork by Chin, with Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer on additional photography duties, capture the most insane shots I have seen in a documentary of this nature since IMAX’s Adrenaline Rush. Very few films make my palms sweat, and even while writing this, my hands are starting to clam up just thinking about it. The amount of detail and beauty that’s seen practically from Honnold’s point of view from 2,000 feet above the ground, is a sight to behold. This demands to be seen on just the biggest screen possible… Now if the Cinesphere or Ontario Science Centre Omnimax could screen the film there…
- Release Date: 10/12/2018