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film review

Alex Honnold makes the first free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.Jimmy Chin/National Geographic / Courtesy of Mongrel

  • Free Solo
  • Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
  • Classification PG; 100 minutes


4 out of 4 stars

Free Solo opens with climber Alex Honnold’s breathing loudly keeping time like a metronome as he winds his way up a long narrow crack. He’s in California’s Yosemite National Park, also known as the centre of the rock-climbing universe. The camera pans out. In seconds we realize, stomachs churning, that Honnold is more than a thousand feet off the ground, free soloing – that is, climbing with no harness, ropes, or other safety gear – a wall that has taunted and beckoned him for years: El Capitan, 3,200 feet of sheer granite. It’s an unthinkable dream.

Free Solo, the documentary directed by the married duo behind 2015’s Meru, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and pro climber Jimmy Chin, is a masterful and intimate character portrait of a climber most of the world agrees is the sanest insane person there is. If you don’t know much about climbing or what he’s trying to do, here is Honnold to explain: “Imagine the worst Pilates class in the world, someone flogging you as you do it and occasionally sandpapering skin off your body. And if you lose the position, you die.” Fun!

It’s no small feat that Vasarhelyi and Chin have turned Honnold into a protagonist who still feels novel and new, given that in recent years the 33-year-old has appeared everywhere from 60 Minutes to the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Somehow, there are new depths to be plumbed just as there are new heights to reach. In Free Solo, Honnold articulates simply and clearly his motivations for free soloing: He wants to reach out and grasp perfection, even just for a moment.

It’s a relatable feeling, that inexplicable push toward a dream. I can’t help but think it’s a childlike impulse, as I watch the boyish Honnold sit tiny in a field staring up at his goal. Some of us leave our dreams behind as more weighty responsibilities take over. Others double down, and throw everything we have at the wall. His is a hellish gamble with an enormous reward.

And as anyone who has ever leapt for their goal well knows, it’s inevitable that others are caught up in the push for greatness. The developing relationship between Honnold and his girlfriend, life coach Sanni McCandless, illustrates this in sharp focus. She learns to climb, and injures her boyfriend in the process. She moves into the van he calls home. She is tender as she gives him a haircut in the park. She artfully demonstrates the armour required to support someone like Alex.

Tension builds as she sits in the front seat of the van and asks if he’ll ever take her into consideration as he plans these climbs. “No,” he says, rather insensitively. “But I appreciate your concerns.” Later, I think, both sides of this exchange are valid, since there is no satisfying compromise. To compromise would mean setting his dream aside and that, he decided long ago, is not an option.

The documentary offers a meta discussion about the ethics of filming an attempt like this. What if the subject drops through the frame to his death? It’s an uncomfortable question in a film full of uncomfortable questions, which inevitably leads to another: What are the ethics of watching and exalting such a film? You could pause here to consider this, if Marco Beltrami’s deft scoring would allow you to take a rest. Instead, the music keeps our emotions moving at a steady pace, winding through moods at turns thrilling, inspiring, fearful, fretful and frustrating.

The morning of Honnold’s second attempt at El Cap is a sombre one. Tommy Caldwell, one of the world’s best climbers and one of Honnold’s longtime friends, is crying. Members of the crew are crying. McCandless is crying. Honnold is climbing. Once again, his heavy breath keeps time as the speck of red dances his way up the wall and into history. Climbers will wish the movie was more technical. But to delve more deeply into the logistical questions behind how he’s eating, drinking, bolting or peeing on the wall would be to lose some of the humanity imbued in this film.

Perfection, it turns out, is a place you can go. Honnold reaching, pitch by pitch, for that place is an incredible thing to behold. As soon as the film ended, I wanted to watch it again immediately. I wanted to touch that feeling again, even just for a moment. “You face your fear because the goal demands it,” Honnold says near the end of the film. “That is the goddamn warrior spirit.” Is it ever. One incredible climb for one athlete, one quantum leap for mankind.

Free Solo opens Oct. 12 in Toronto and Montreal, and Oct. 19 in Vancouver

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