Free Solo (4 stars)

Free Solo

credit: National Geographic / Jimmy Chin

Insightful and exhilarating documentary following rock climber Alex Honnold

Opening with the dizzying aerial image of climber Alex Honnold perched perilously on a seemingly sheer cliff face, high above the ground, Free Solo is visually spectacular from the outset. Perhaps more awesome than the soaring natural habitat in which he spends the majority of his time, however, is the fact that Honnold is a free solo climber, meaning that he conquers the world's most incredible peaks without any ropes or safety gear.

For a man obsessed with such a dangerous sport – the film follows him as he prepares to become the first person to free solo climb Yosemite's notorious 3,000 foot El Capitan – Honnold is as laid-back as they come. When asked about the dangers of his chosen profession, he seems incredulous that anyone should consider risk before reward. 'Maybe I'm too close to it,' he observes. 'I can't tell that I'm speeding towards a cliff.'

Despite all his phenomenal athletic feats, captured in incredible detail by drones and the impressive work of cameramen climbers including Jimmy Chin (a co-director with his wife, award-winning filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), it soon transpires that the cliff may actually be Honnold's own mental precipice. When he falls for amateur climber Sanni McCandless, who he meets on a book tour, perpetual bachelor Honnold finds the necessary selfishness of his sport put under the microscope. That McCandless is increasingly – and vocally – invested in whether he lives or dies proves just another burden to carry up the rock face.

Indeed, what's so fascinating about Free Solo is not just the way in which it celebrates the limits of physical endeavour, but its exploration of the mental and emotional processes behind such pursuits. Honnold speaks of an affectionless childhood, of his desire to be the best outweighing his desire to be happy. Brain scans reveal that it takes far more for Honnold to respond to stimuli than in other adults but, as his relationship with McCandless deepens, he begins to show signs of self-doubt, making the first mistakes of his climbing career.

Yet he never loses sight of his ambition to defeat El Cap and the cameras are with him every step of the way, bringing another aspect to this fascinating documentary. We are privy to frank conversations between the camera team about how their very presence may distract Honnold, how they may be responsible for him making a catastrophic error. With the relationship between filmmaker and subject as keenly observed as that between Honnold and the environment he wishes to conquer, Free Solo is as insightful as it is exhilarating

Limited release from Fri 14 Dec.

Free Solo

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 40min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold and his ambition to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite national park. Insightful and exhilarating, showing how Honnold’s personal life and background have affected his climbing, and how the filmmakers themselves had to take special efforts not to distract him into making a…