Free Solo

 

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Yosemite is the setting as a remarkable man tackles a climb that could prove fatal.

 
Free Solo

  

Alex Honnold is somebody whose most famed exploits involve mountaineering without ropes or other protection, a procedure known as free solo climbing. It became a special ambition of his to be the first person to ascend Yosemite's El Capitan in this manner and this documentary feature made by husband and wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is a record filmed in 2016 and 2017 of Alex Honnold's endeavours in this respect.

 

The film extends briefly to footage shot in Morocco but, for the most part, it plays out against the background of Yosemite. That yields impressive images but, even so, this is not a piece like 2017's Mountain which, while incorporating climbing, appealed to those fascinated by nature at its grandest. Free Solo is essentially a film for those keen to witness an extraordinary climber at work, but that fact does not mean that its images are in any way lacking (the eventual ascent which provides the climax to the film is admirably presented and Free Solo is unquestionably a work best seen in a cinema on a big screen).

 

Chin and many of the crew are themselves climbers who were already known to Alex Honnold and that bond has clearly contributed to what has been captured on film. The fact that Honnold plans ahead, climbing with ropes to study the face of the mountain and to decide on the exact movements required at the most tricky spots, ensures that Free Solo has plenty to hold our attention prior to the final bid. It also gives us portraits of Honnold himself, of his friend and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell and of his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. If the film celebrates Alex Honnold's courage, it does so without hiding his foolhardiness: references back to his childhood suggest why he needs to prove himself through this kind of climbing, in itself a performance of sorts which, if you come out of it alive, means that you have touched perfection. Hand in hand with that, one finds in Alex Honnold an inbred emotional reserve so marked that not only feminists will scorn his attitude to Sanni despite the genuine bond between them. At first one laughs at him over this, but it ceases to be amusing when one considers what his climbing puts her through - that she accepts his need to pursue his dream makes her the film's heroine.

 

Free Solo is a film made with considerable professionalism, a fact illustrated during the climactic scenes  when, having made us hold our breath over one danger spot featured earlier, it springs on us another such moment for which we have not been prepared. Anyone drawn to Free Solo by the subject matter will be suitably impressed - by the film, by the rapport between the filmmakers and the people featured and by the bravery of Alex Honnold.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin.

 

Dir Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Pro Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill, Ph Jimmy Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer, Ed Bob Eisenhardt, Music Marco Beltrami.

 

Little Monster Films/National Geographic/Parkes+Macdonald Image Nation-Dogwoof.
100 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 14 December 2018. Cert. 12A.