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Alex Honnold peers over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.Jimmy Chin/National Geographic / Courtesy of Mongrel

There was a little collective gasp when the winner of the Academy Award for documentary feature was announced last Sunday. It was a gasp of satisfaction because the winner is a stunner.

Free Solo (Sunday, National Geographic Channel, 9 p.m.) is a jaw-dropper, both in what is documented and its visual impact. It’s about the climber Alex Honnold, whose vocation is the spectacularly dangerous “free solo” climb, without a rope, going up sheer rock faces. It looks impossible, actually, if you think about it.

The 33-year-old Honnold does think about it. But he thinks differently. What emerges in the film (it had a successful theatrical run but was always going to end up on TV and National Geo is airing it commercial-free on Sunday) is a likeable but essentially remote figure. He’s driven, and he talks about his climbs as a way of achieving “perfection.” What gives real depth to the film is the presence of his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. She’s the one who asks him what he’s doing, why, and in his response to her you feel you’re getting to know him. Just a little. You are also in awe of her patience.

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Honnold is pictured free-soloing El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-high rock formation in Yosemite Valley, Calif.Jimmy Chin/National Geographic / Courtesy of Mongrel

The doc is about his free-solo climb, in 2017, of El Capitan, the 900-metre--high rock formation in Yosemite Valley, Calif. It’s sheer straight-up granite. And it has been climbed before, but not without ropes or harnesses. What we see is Honnold in shoes, pants and a T-shirt go up, and up, the sheer face. All he’s got is his body and some chalk in his pocket.

Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow Honnold as he preps, practises and tries to get McCandless used to the idea that he might die. Most free solo climbers do, eventually. The film exists because, well, he did succeed but that does not make it less excruciating to watch. There’s a point in it where Honnold has to deal with a portion of the climb that’s given the title “The Boulder Problem”, and all that the climber can do to keep going is contort his body very carefully. The fact that he does with supreme confidence is both chilling and electrifying to watch.

And the issue of “watching” is part of the texture of this extraordinary doc. The crew documenting the climb are fully aware they could be about to see Honnold fall to his death. And the true tension arises from their agonizing intensity. Speaking to us TV critics in Los Angeles recently Honnold said that watching the climb is harder than doing it: “Typically, watching free-soloing is much more stressful than actually doing it. Because when you do it, you know how prepared you are and you know how comfortable you are. But when you’re watching it, there’s no sense of control and you’re just hoping for the best. And, obviously, that’s super stressful.”

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Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan's Freerider.Jimmy Chin/National Geographic / Courtesy of Mongrel

That is actually a bizarre statement. The guy is so comfortable in his body, in his skill and obsession. He feels a bit sorry for people watching. But it’s that strange unnerving confidence that somehow placated McCandless (she was in L.A. with him, they’re still in love) and allowed the filmmakers to watch and document his stunningly dangerous climb. All of it, the climb and the intensity of watching, is breathtaking.

Also airing this weekend

Laughing and Crying (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) is an excellent and compelling hour that takes the view that few aspects of human behaviour and communication are as poorly understood as laughs and tears. A variety of experts are interviewed and experiments are shown. You can watch an experiment in which a chain of laughter is created and laughter “hijacks” the bodies of people. It’s “pure behavioural contagion,” according to one scientist. But the science then goes deeper, our brains are analyzed to determine how we distinguish between false and authentic laughter. We’re told that most laughter is preceded by things that aren’t funny. Banal talk can incite laughter because it’s a primal way of connecting. You will be tickled by all of it. As for tears, you will learn that the crying of babies triggers an automatic, empathetic response from their parents. Well, you probably knew that, but the program drills down to look at thermal imaging of people beginning to tear up. And then there’s the matter of why crying makes you feel better. That comes up, too.

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