Free Solo is a climbing documentary that is really something special.
Oddly enough, I’ve actually seen quite a few climbing documentaries over the years – despite being the kind of person who gets vertigo at the top of a set of stepladders – and one of the commonalities among a lot of them is the focus on one extraordinary climber who is pushing the boundaries of mountaineering or climbing in general. This film is sort of that kind of film – Alex Honnold is definitely that kind of character for good and ill – and at the same time it absolutely isn’t that kind of film.
What the film does different that, for me, is at the heart of what makes it such a compelling film and why it lingers in the thoughts for days after watching, is that it puts Alex and his climb in context. Not just in terms of climbing El Capitan, or even in terms of free soloing – essentially climbing alone with no ropes or other safety equipment – as impressive as those things are, but as a member of a community. Throughout the film the camera pulls back to reveal the team around him, both the film crew – all experienced climbers in their own right – and the other climbers he trains with in the run up to his climb. He may be a bit of a loner living in a van and preferring to climb alone, but he is not alone, he has a mum and a girlfriend, friends and mentors in climbing and while climbing is his life, there’s more to him and his life than just climbing.
Co-director Jimmy Chin has some very frank discussions about responsibility and safety throughout the film, along with his acknowledged fear of seeing Alex falling through the frame and knowing that will mean that he’s falling to his death. (The flip side of this is shown in Alex’s admission before his first attempt that he’s made his peace with the fact that he may well fall to his death doing this, but that he can’t yet make his peace with the crew, his friends having to watch him fall to his death. Given the state of his ankle at the time of his first attempt, I genuinely believe it is that thought that causes him to abort the attempt and in doing so likely saves his life.) That sentiment is repeated throughout the film by both the crew and fellow climber – he’s going to do this whether I help him or not, and I don’t want him to die so I’m going to do everything in my power to help him be as best prepared as he can possibly be.
I really wasn’t prepared for how emotionally invested I was going to get in this film, or the sudden heart-stopping realisation I had during his first solo climb that I didn’t know if he’d made it, if he was still alive.
The film slowly builds that emotional investment throughout, by way of situating him a person who is cared about by those around him. We see the building relationship he has with his girlfriend Sanni, the place he has in the community of climbers – eating and playing with their families – and with the film crew. It would be easy for a film of this kind to feel voyeuristic but the film has a nice line in the power of looking and looking away. There’s some really effective use of graphics throughout his second attempt that both give an effective sense of the scale of the climb while also giving the viewer a much-needed release from the building tension. Tense is definitely the operative word during that climb, giving us both gorgeous vistas that emphasise the scale of the task and the achievement of it and tight close-ups that lay out the sheer skill and tenacity of Alex as a climber. Counter-intuitively though, some of the tensest moments are when we are pulled right back from the action, watching instead the impact that the climb is having on the film crew, on the way that one of them in particular (Mikey Schaefer) is so overcome with fear and concern for Alex that he can barely look through his own viewfinder. His pained looking and looking away is both deeply effective in its own right and strangely cathartic for the viewer, as though given permission to look away, to feel our own fear and acknowledge that we have come to care – and fear – for our protagonist too. It also – spoiler alert – allows us to share in the equally visceral joy in his victory, to cry and cheer along with the crew that he’s achieved his dream.