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Free Solo Review: A Terrifying Tale About Emotions and Mountain Climbing

By: Devasheesh Pandey


Last Updated: April 12, 2019, 11:15 IST

Free Solo Review: A Terrifying Tale About Emotions and Mountain Climbing

The film follows Alex Honnold as he prepares to become the first man to ever attempt to 'free solo' the 3200 ft El Capitan granite cliff in Yosemite valley.

Free Solo

Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Featuring: Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless

Free Solo is a landscape of human resolve, emotions, fear, death and love, without easy handouts, informational life guide or metaphorical meanings that one might otherwise expect from the biopic of Alex Honnold, a climber with a particular passion for scaling mountains without ropes, harnesses, or any sort of protective equipment.

The film follows Alex as he prepares to become the first man to ever attempt to 'free solo' the 3200 ft El Capitan granite cliff in Yosemite valley. Why he does this is not the question that the makers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi set out to answer. They seek to demystify Alex's relationships with other human beings (his girlfriend, mother, fellow climbers), and in turn with nature and the nature of adventure sports itself. It is discomforting, unsettling and emotional to see Alex being put through this as Free Solo meticulously traverses to the heart of a climber, a brave heart, who lives with the constant contemplation of death.

The film introduces us to Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, who, even Alex believes, has managed to find her way to somehow connect with him. Sanni is not a professional climber, but she embarks on adventures with Alex just so she can get an inkling of what it is to live like Alex, which is practically inside a van, with a blanket, broom and canned food. In that, Sanni also wants Alex to be in touch with his emotional self, one that she emphasises, jokingly, is entirely missing in him. It is almost contradictorily humourous to see a Alex 'free solo' mammoth peaks, while he still struggles to say 'love' and instead uses 'the L word' for it, for Sanni. At one point he seems really vulnerable and shadowed by self-doubt when he generally points out that he is having a premonition, since he has got hurt, quite a few times, after Sanni came into his life, while she still insists that he has communicative emotional issues and should speak more.

Its not easy for us to see Alex confront his feelings right before he scales El Capitan. His romantic relationship with Sanni is not what baffles or scares Alex. The practicality of it in his life, however, does. As one of his fellow climbers point out, a man can have no distractions while he climbs. While another one claims that Sanni pierces through his 'armour', which is not good for Alex. He is bared in front of us, thread by thread, before he attempts to make the climb, and his fears become our fears. His failure albeit will be his own and we are objectively aware of it, courtesy observational documentary approach.

Directors Chin and Vasarhelyi have empahsised on the difficulty of making such a film. The emotional toll it takes on the makers and the pressure on the subject, of being filmed, is palpable throughout. "Having a film crew changes mindset," points out Alex during one of the conversations. Not that Chin and his crew are not aware of it. In making the film, they may instead capture someone’s final moments, as is shown in one of the scenes where a man slips off while climbing! The camera persons are the prime distraction for Alex and the onus in worst case scenario will subconsciously and ultimately be theirs.

It is somewhere in the battle against all the confused and suppressed feelings, stress, anxiety and fear is where the nuanced message of the film lies. Nothing is easy about Free Solo. It is a flux of emotions where Alex is not just attempting the climb of his life, which will be a historical and cultural feat, he has to succeed or else he dies.

The build up to the final climb is in the form of an epic performance montage where we reaffirm our faith in Alex. He recalls each move that he will attempt during the scaling. His close friend dies days before the El Capitan climb, but Alex is too sharp and focused now to call off his friend's death a routine incident and justify it in the professional scheme of things.

Sanni's perspective is not overlooked here because we assume that she knows what she is getting into with Alex but the intensity of associating with and loving a person like him, and the way it frightens and attracts the people around them is too scary to comprehend. But the film brings it out by making her an equal partner in Alex's life journey where the possibility of death is always an outcome but love is a steeper challenge.

There are no life lessons to be learned here, or a hero to be welcomed back home, in case things go south. The documentary is not reverential but exhilarating. In the final sequence, tension is built into each frame and editing enhances the effect manifold. The unsafe close climbing holds are intercut with a resolute Alex, going unfettered, and then some wide landscaped vistas. In a masterfully put together film that enhances the 'wow' and 'oh no' effect, we see Alex stuck inadequately between cracked lines, and in scaling them, and his emotions, will he emerge the ultimate winner?

Free Solo won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 91st Academy Awards. Its co-produced and distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films.

Star: 4/5

first published:April 12, 2019, 11:00 IST
last updated:April 12, 2019, 11:15 IST