Soaring 900 metres tall, its craggy edges and sheer surfaces jutting into the sky, El Capitan is one of earth's monsters. A granite cliff in Yosemite National Park, it's a formidable sight, striking fear into the heart of anyone averse to heights, making even the steadiest on their feet feel shaky, and casting a long shadow over the world below. To stand at the bottom of the mammoth monolith is to stand at the base of a giant. To scale its heights is to ascend into the heavens. But you don't need to have experienced El Cap's eye-catching expanse in person to feel its inescapable power. Even on the big screen, the glorious rock formation is staggering — and it gets plenty of screen time in Free Solo.
In a film that can't stop looking at El Cap, Alex Honnold does more than stare at the cliff's lofty size and gaze at its vertical terrain. A professional climber with 20 years experience and the centre of this stellar documentary, he's determined to scamper up the intimidating structure. He's not the first to scale the sheet of rock, but he is the first to do so without any ropes or support — and, just to make the deed even more difficult, he does it alone. That's free soloing. While the outcome of his attempt is now common knowledge, Free Solo steps through the process from start to finish, chronicling his setbacks and successes in a methodical manner. From contending that the climb is just too scary, to training through an injury that'd make anyone else quit, to facing his girlfriend Sanni's fretful feelings about his death-defying dream, the movie delves deep into Honnold's quest.
The latest high-altitude, high-stakes picture from Meru filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin — and a newly minuted Oscar nominee for this year's best doco prize — Free Solo is the tale of a cliff, a climber, and the latter's desire to conquer the former. But it's the story of humanity's yearning to explore, interrogate and brush up against our environment as well. Charting Honnold's unwavering commitment to his task, it's also an account of his preference for hanging precariously above the world instead of planting his feet firmly on the ground. The film shows how the possibility of dying can't deter someone so dedicated from pursuing their passion, and that the thrill of a seemingly impossible challenge is as intoxicating as any drug. This nerve-wracking movie also details the intense preparation and planning required not just to make such a climb, but to capture it on camera. And, it examines the toll of documenting Honnold's feat, pondering whether the picture immortalises history or jeopardises his life.
In short, Free Solo has as many angles as El Cap's ledges and crevices, however Honnold is the film's own towering presence. Vasarhelyi and Chin can't claim to lay bare their subject's psyche — he's a man of action more than talk — but they can and do reveal plenty about the wiry thirty-something. The documentary acts as a coming-of-age narrative of sorts, tracking Honnold's transformation from living in a van, eating slapped-together dinners out of a frying pan and dedicating every waking minute to climbing, to buying a house, finding room for someone else in his life, and experiencing the ups and downs of being in a serious relationship. And yet, it's never more revelatory than when it's simply staring at his face while he's gripping a slab of granite, his precariously placed fingertips the only things keeping him from plummeting down a nearly one-kilometre drop.
Of course, that's not to say that Free Solo doesn't boast plenty of other spectacular sights. Seeing Honnold suspended against his surroundings will stick with audiences long after watching, as will the stunning Yosemite scenery. Indeed, the exceptional footage compiled by Vasarhelyi, Chin and their dedicated team (all mostly climbers themselves) proves nothing short of a technical and visual marvel, as edited to precision by veteran Bob Eisenhardt. But the calm, focused, assured gleam in Honnold's eye still says more than any other image can — and more than words as well. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, every second that the film spends on his zen-like expression paints a picture of pure intensity and exhilaration. What's more astonishing, dazzling and ultimately life-affirming than witnessing someone so relaxed and confident in the face of such extreme danger?
What's more tense and thrilling, too? Butterflies in the stomach, fidgeting fingers and a near-unshakeable case of the jitters all spring from Free Solo as well, with the movie hitting several nerves. It's never easy to accept one's mortality. In fact, it's the hardest thing we're ever tasked with doing during our time alive, even when we're just sitting in a cinema watching someone else put their existence on the line. That's the crux of this equally insightful and scary documentary, which serves up more suspense than most horror flicks. As well as chronicling an awe-inspiring story, every frame of Free Solo offers a palpable, visceral reminder of life's enormous risks and immense rewards — and to the filmmakers' credit, you're all but certain to feel the impact in your constantly sweaty palms.