July Theme Month

Anxiety and Inspiration in Free Solo

The thought of climbing a mountain or rock face for most people is terrifying, but for Alex Honnold, it is his life. He is arguably the world’s greatest rock climber, known best for his free solo climbing without the use of any safety equipment. Honnold’s ultimate ambition is to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley without any ropes or harnesses, and Free Solo tells the story of his quest.

Free SoloHonnold dedicates himself to his passion. He keeps his life simple, living out of a van and practising climbing whenever he can. Honnold may have a talent for unaided rock climbing and the confidence to do it, but Free Solo demonstrates the meticulous planning and preparation he makes to learn his route up El Capitan. Part of Honnold’s journey sees him attempt an area named the Boulder Problem. Alex decides it is better to perform a karate kick to get a foothold, whilst hanging on by his fingertips to avoid a slick rock section. The audiences’ hearts will palpitate as they watch him rehearse and perform this movement, among others, even when he is wearing protective hardware. In another scene, the camera focuses on his hands and feet, barely making contact with the rock. As Honnold’s fingertips are clasping to the slightest crimps, my hands were perspiring. Marco Beltrami‘s score also intensifies the tension created throughout the film.

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (a fellow climber) share the notion that practice makes perfect, as they devote time to the production process. They discuss ways to capture this potential accomplishment whilst not intruding on Honnold’s experience and endangering his life. One solution to capturing sound is to place a microphone in Honnold’s chalk bag, as they do not want to get too close to him with the cameras. 

The film also shares a personal portrayal of Honnold. The audience sees what life choices he has made and his attitudes towards subjects such as romantic relationships. His overriding love for rock climbing- and especially doing it free solo- has caused prior relationships to collapse in the past, yet his current girlfriend stands by him and respects his passion despite her natural caution. 

Free Solo may convey a feeling of apprehension, but it is also an inspirational film. Honnold’s work ethic to learn every nook and crevice of his route up El Capitan is exemplary, and it demonstrates the diligence required to succeed at anything. Whether you know if Honnold achieves his ambition or not before watching, it’s the film’s journey that culminates towards the resulting emotions. Free Solo is a cinematic experience that will have the audience feeling uneasy for the most part, and it is an astonishing work of documentary filmmaking.

This piece is part of a series of writings published during July 2019 about documentaries. Documentaries can… celebrate an accomplishment as we’ve seen in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo.

Ian began working in film as one of the founding members of the Rochester Film Society, where he led the programming for films and curated screenings. Since moving into film criticism and writing for Cineccentric, he has provided coverage for various film festivals including London, Glasgow and the BFI Flare Film Festival. He is also the Communications Manager for the North East International Film Festival, where he helps acquire films. Ian particularly admires works from contemporary directors like Céline Sciamma, David Fincher, Steve McQueen and Nicolas Winding Refn.

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