How is the life of someone who practices free solo climbing, that is, without ropes or harnesses? That’s question documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi try to answer as they follow young free climber Alex Honnold on the most extreme and exciting challenge of his career as a professional rock climber: to free solo “El Capitan”, a 900-meters rock formation located in Yosemite National Park in California. Nominated at the Oscars and winner of various awards (including a BAFTA), Free Solo is a documentary that takes a closer look at one of the world’s most dangerous sports, through the journey of an enigmatic, yet affable climber whose perseverance, life choices and priorities can’t help but astonish the audience.
Chin (a climber himself) and Chai Vsarhelyi, two filmmakers specialised in climbing and mountaineering documentaries, built their film around Alex Honnold’s masterstroke. However, behind what seems like a classic story about an individual overcoming obstacles to achieve his goal (going through different phases such as preparation, trial and error, and final attempt) is the more personal story of Honnold. While he is driven by his passion for climbing and the achievement of the challenges he sets his mind on, it is difficult for Honnold to see what motivates others who don’t share his lifestyle. During more emotional moments, we are shown fragments of interviews with his girlfriend Sanni which helps us understand how free climbing “El Capitan” makes Honnold feel complete, beyond the obvious high risk of dying or losing his significant other.
The cinematography of Free Solo is absolutely jaw-dropping. Aside from the incredibly beautiful scenery, watching Honnold ascend this massive rock face is more exhilarating than any Mission Impossible films. Both montage and visual rhythm are on point, and the music contributes to keeping the audience at the edge of their seat. Free Solo manages to make the viewers feel as though they were climbing “El Capitan” right next to Honnold, hearing is every heartbeat and every breath during his life or death ascent. Without a doubt, one of the most intense and intimist documentaries of the year that will seduce those who enjoyed Man on Wire and Kilian Jornet Path to Everest.
2018: Oscar Awards: Best documentary
2018: BAFTA Awards: Nominated for Best documentary
2018: Toronto Film Festival: Audience Award (Best Documentary)
2018: National Board of Review (NBR): Best documentaries of the year
Runtime: 97 min
Direction: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Cinematography: Jimmy Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Popkin
OST: Marco Beltrami
Contact: National Geographic