Free Solo won an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Documentary and was also the Critics’ Choice. It is a breathtaking account of an astonishing feat, the free solo (no ropes, folks!) climb of an impossible rock face, the 3000ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, by a fascinating man, Alex Honnold. It shows his preparations for the climb and the detailed way in which he plans the climb, including what steps he will take at all stages. The possibility of death stalks the film and it is poignant that the film crew, all highly experienced climbers, are anxious about putting him off his footholds.
There’s enough background information on Honnold to ensure we know he’s an oddball (he describes himself as having been ‘a dark soul, melancholic… a dorky loner’ as a child until he discovered climbing), and utterly driven (‘I’ll always choose climbing over a lady’ or ‘no-one achieves anything by being happy and cosy’). But when his good friend and free climbing training partner Tommy Caldwell enthuses that Honnold’s ‘attitude to risk makes you feel invincible’ and goes on to say that in their sport that’s a vice rather than a virtue, you realise that this El Capitan climb – and specifically the fact that it’s being filmed – has absolutely no margin for error.
While this constant build-up of tension seems to affect everyone involved – to the extent that cameramen refuse to watch their own footage as he attempts the trickiest sections, and Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, drives home in tears rather than witness the attempt – it’s only really Honnold who keeps it together. And as he rehearses his grips, holds and manoeuvres, and runs through the nearly four hours of relentless perfection required to conquer the toughest climb in history, it’s clear that he’s not a reckless daredevil, he’s bloody-minded perfectionist.
As Caldwell later wrote in Outside magazine: ‘Climbing is an intimate relationship with our world’s most dramatic landscapes, not a self-boasting fight against them. I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of Alex’s mind, but I know one thing for certain: Alex climbs to live, not to cheat death.’ Although very few of us will choose pursuits in which we face death on a regular basis, we probably all have reasons to live. And by making Free Solo about that specific quality about their friend, Vasarhelyi and Chin have created something we can all buy into emotionally. Terrifyingly emotionally.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall