Alex Honnold has defied human limits, solo climbing the 3000-foot El Capitan wall in Yosemite Park – and Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi were along with him for the journey, capturing it all for the world to see. The emotions this story shares are extremely raw and captivating, displaying the human desire for greatness alongside the inherent and persistent risk of death, by exploring the nature of Alex’s relationships and his task at hand.
This documentary is one that is very aware of itself, making its audience conscious of the ins and out of how it got made. For example, the camera men have to strategically position themselves along El Cap’s route, getting the footage that is necessary while respecting Alex’s practice, what he needs as he solos the vertical face. We see them planning out their positioning, and even climbing with their equipment on (a feat in itself, I would say.) We learn about how this production makes those who are involved on it nervous. As Alex’s friends, they are the only ones who he would feel comfortable with sticking their noses into his personal life. But there seems to be a part of each of them that wishes he would just give up, forget about the movie. But just like him, they are thrilled by it, too – they want audiences to know about the world of climbing, they want to see their friend succeed, they want to be the support that will help Alex reach his goals. We know about how the intended scheduling of the climb got off-put, a whole season, because Alex didn’t feel he was ready. What Chin and Vasarhelyi choose to include build the story into one that is inclusive, that heightens emotion by bringing us into its production.
The cinematography is a beautifully executed, a major player of the film. The stunning scenery of numerous climbing locations (typically adorned by a tiny, ant-sized Alex, climbing), as well as the more personal shots from Alex’s van, work together to immerse us in a world that is so huge, when you’re looking at it from a drone, but so small, when considering it from the settings that are owned privately or are occupied by yourself and those close to you. The juxtaposition between these spaces seems obvious, but in the film they almost seem to blur together in a less definitive way – movie magic.
That Chin and Vasarhelyi were able to document Alex’s relationship with Sanni McCandless, which gives more context to his human story of being a fearless climber. Alex is unique compared to most people, from his brain, to his physical abilities, to his perspective: he makes clear that he will always put climbing before someone else – but this film shows that even he, something of an emotional anomaly, loves love. The moments captured between Sanni and Alex hint towards the idea that after Alex climbs El Cap, he will be ready to settle down with Sanni. That with this specific success, he deserves something that he has never fully given himself to before.
Free Solo is a wonderful exploration of the human: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Its story provides it the chance to heighten such wonders, but its honest and penetrating execution is what gives the audience the ability to introspect. Relating to Alex, his experience, and his friends’ experiences, we can channel out most primitive, human feelings and questions.