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An Absolute Cliff Hanger: Free Solo Review

The tagline for Free Solo is ”Live Beyond Fear”. And it’s certainly a motto we should all take away with us after watching this breath-taking, and intense documentary. This may be the closest that many of us will get to solo climbing (a type of climbing style where the climber performs alone and without using any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, relying entirely on his or her ability instead) – and it is one hell of an experience.

Free Solo recently took the BAFTA home for Best Documentary, and has picked up the Best Documentary award at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. It has some tough competition at this year’s Academy Awards, up against the likes of Minding The Gap and RBG.

There has certainly been an increased interest in rock climbing, with the likes of The Dawn Wall (2018), Meru (2015) (also directed by Free Solo‘s Jimmy Chin, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) and To The Limit (2007), all receiving critical praise and attention. There’s something about the activity of rock climbing which appeals to us, and we are fascinated about what drives a person to scale up an impossible rock face, risking their life to get to the top.

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Free Solo follows rock climber Alex Honnold (who you may recognise from The Dawn Wall), on his quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in June 2017. El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, measuring 3,000 feet (900m) from base to summit along its tallest face.

Seeing the rock for the first time on the big screen takes your breath away. It’s hard to understand just how massive a task is ahead of Honnold, until we see the El Capitan in all of its epic glory. The challenge of the climb isn’t simply the height of the rock, but the fact that it has a sheer granite face, making in vertically impossible to climb.

Honnold is full of determination, and driven by obsession. He is also a bit of a lone wolf, living out of an old dodge Ram ProMaster van, where he spends the majority of  his time planning his ascent of El Cap and learning how to cook vegetables. ”Girlfriends, are not a priority” Honnold exclaims to the filmmakers. But then Sanni McCandless enters his life, and Honnold realises there’s more to life than climbing. McCandless brings stability to Honnold’s life, helping him come out of his shell and experience another side of life. However, the challenge of climbing El Cap keeps pulling him back.

There are moments where you are so caught up watching the film, that you find your breathing increasing, and your palms sweating. Each time we see Honnold slip and fall, there’s a need to release a gasp, but I found myself unable to release a sound. This is a film which draws you in, it is truly gripping in a way that only a well-crafted thriller can replicate. The tension is panic attack inducing, but you can’t quite bring yourself to turn away from the screen – even when there are moments where it’s almost unbearable to watch.

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The directors, along with the crew, are made up of experienced climbers, and it shows. This is a film that is created with a sense of passion and dedication of the sport. Each camera angle has been carefully decided, and the reason for this is out of respect for the film’s subject. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarheyli are close friends of their subject, and therefore they understood his need for space on the rock.

One of the hardest problems was getting sound from Honnold, who often was too far from the camera to use wireless mics. Having Honnold wear a mic was out of the question, as it would have interfered with his ability to climb. Sound recordist Jim Hurst, (who was a climber himself) utilized a recorder that could transmit a signal to the camera, but also record to itself when the camera was out of range.

Free Solo shows the humanity, insanity, and personal struggle for perfection. Honnold is a complex individual who seems like an oddball, (I suppose you have to be if you want to climb a 3000 Ft. rock without any ropes), but you can’t help but admire him, even feel envious of him. Unlike the heroes of comic-book films, Honnold is still human. He still has his moments of self-doubt, and where the elements are out of his control. The documentary does touch upon the tragic deaths of other solo climbers, which reminds us and Honnold how sometimes one wrong move is all it takes, and how precious life is.

The last act of this film is so tense, that it is almost hard to describe. The theatre was silent, as all of the audience held their breath, watching in awe as Honnold began his climb. With it’s moving story, stunning cinematography and excellent sound design, there’s so much to enjoy about Free Solo. This is a documentary that you need to appreciate on the big screen. Go watch it.

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