FREE SOLO, US, 2018. Starring Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni Mc Candless.Directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. 100 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language).
This is a National Geographic Documentary production. The subject, indicated by the title, Free Solo, is mountain climbing, scaling mountains without any ropes or safety gear. Obviously, a must for mountain climbers. Others may find it a very strange vicarious experience, partly exhilarating, partly dizzying, quite amazing in terms of the achievement of the central character, Alex Honnold.
Alex was a quiet boy who lived in Sacramento, California. He became interested in climbing, found that he had natural skills, climbed many mountains in the traditional way, but also began to do free solo work throughout the United States, sometimes going abroad, with scenes in this film from Morocco.
Initially, the audience might be wondering how they got all these shots and close-ups of Alex and details of his climbing. Soon we are introduced to the filmmakers, climbers themselves, Alex’s friends, especially director Jimmy Chin, and see how they climbed (with ropes and gear) to find the best places to film, perched on the side of the mountains, getting long shots, getting close-ups of Alex, very conscious that they should not distract him or disturb him, and very alert to the dangers and the reality of sudden falls and death.
The film presents quite a genial picture of Alex himself – although he is very introverted, focused, and not particularly well integrated emotionally, coming from a family which did not hug or use the word love, becoming involved with a girlfriend, Sanni Mc Candless, who finds his self-contained reserve sometimes very difficult. However, we see him speaking to students at his old school as well as his establishing a personal foundation for aid against poverty.
For those who love mountain scenery, this film is very rewarding. The ultimate destination is Yosemite Valley, the mountain face nicknamed El Capitan. By the end of the film, the audience has become familiar with various sites on the mountain, secure places, dangerous places, alarming places.
Alex plans to scale El Capitan and in free solo. However, he has some accidents and bails out in an attempt, postponing the feat for a year. We see some of his physical regimen, some information about his diet, follow his close examination of the whole route up El Capitan and his notebooks and the details of steps – as we remember that he has only two hands, two feet, eight fingers and two thumbs as his resource. And, just so that we remember the challenge, the film edits in all kinds of views from the mountain, down the steep sides, the crevices in the rocks, and the green valley far below.
For those who are prone to the touch of the vertiginous, it is something of an ordeal to watch even though we know that the attempt is going to be successful. But, the film is a tribute to the intensity of Alex Honnold, his talent, his perseverance, his illustration of what can be heroic physical achievement.
Madman films. Releasing January 24th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.