Free Solo removes all documentarian constraints and ascends through an intense portrait. Free soloing. Willingly climbing obstacles both in nature and in mind. No harness. No life cable. Just incalculable amounts of methodical courage to ascend through one’s obsession. Where an incorrect move, hold or distraction will send the athletic individual plummeting to the wooded foliage hundreds of feet below. Alex Honnold is a rock climber whom opts for the less restrained route of ascension, tackling the most grandiose of rock formations. Zion National Park. El Potrero Chico. The Ennedi Plateau. Mountaineer Jimmy Chin and his partner Vasarhelyi utilised Free Solo, not just to document Honnold’s quest to become the first individual to free solo climb El Capitan, but to convey the psyche of a rock climber facing obsession.
First and foremost, Alex Honnold is an absolute lunatic. Choosing to live in a compact van for over a decade, isolated from suburban life, travelling the world to risk his life by climbing rocks with no safety equipment. The sheer courage and confidence Honnold emanates, upholding limited emotional connection to anything else in his life, is bordering sociopathy. That, was my initial reaction.
Then the documentary continued and, approximately during his first trial of ascending El Capitan, it dawned on me why Honnold is such a captivating character. He has no personality. He has no temperament. Blunt, honest and monotonous through his journey. None of that matters here. The trait he maximises most, is passion. The glisten in his eyes as he becomes bewildered by the sun rising behind El Capitan, its warm rays beating down on the rock face. The broadened smile when he completes an intimidatingly difficult pitch during his many test climbs. The sudden burst of energy exuded from his lips when discussing the perilous task ahead. Honnold had turned his sole passion in life, into a career. He lives each day to its maximum potential, by doing the one activity he is obsessed with. Essentially, Alex Honnold is free.
The balance between his personal life and the El Capitan endeavour was levelled throughout. Injecting strands of humanity during unfortunate times of injury. The most prominent exploration being his relationship with McCandless, which adorably commenced after a book signing. An incredibly mature partnership which cloaks itself in understanding and adoration. Occasionally, whilst the documentary addresses his inability to showcase emotions, it does create a barrier that makes it somewhat difficult to empathise with him. The origins to his cold stance to the dreaded word of “love” is explained, yet no matter how forced the topic is explored, the shield still remains.
Fortunately his final, and official, ascent up El Capitan put aside the personal woes and emotional incapacities. Solely implementing all cinematography and acute energy into each crevice upon the rock face. To put it simply, it was terrifying. My hands experiencing a tingling sensation like no other. My partner’s hands sweaty beyond all measures. The dizzying heights and spellbinding cinematography elevated the already death-defying climb to atmospheric proportions, transforming a simple documentary into an intense thriller.
Free Solo replicates the features of towering mountains. A rocky start gradually smooths out to a curvaceous surface, equipped with cracks, crevices and other memorable characteristics. A documentary that refuses to just be a nail-biting climb, but an intense portrait of a man who demonstrates the limitations of the human psyche and body.