October 30, 2018 – This National Geographic documentary film, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin is centered on the first solo free climb (using no ropes or anchors) of the 3,000-foot vertical granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 2017 by climber Alex Honnold.
The harrowing climb, one of unsurpassed difficulty and danger, along with stunning cinematography of the feat, is the film's climax, but mostly, the film is about Alex Honnold himself. The film tries to explain what motivates him to attempt this ascent, and what makes him such a good climber.
The film also delves into the relationship between Alex and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. Sanni clearly loves Alex and doesn't want him to climb El Capitan, but Alex is determined not to allow this relationship to increase his aversion to climbing risk.
The way that Alex handles risk in climbing is not so much overcoming his fear, but by anesthetizing himself against fear through extremely extensive preparation. This involves careful study of the rock face and numerous practice runs over the most difficult parts of the climb until his confidence level is such that he feels safe in making the attempt.
This extremely atypical mental state is explored through an examination of Alex's childhood, and even a literal peek inside his mind. An MRI scan of Alex's brain during the film reveals that the part of his brain that activates during normal amounts of stimulation is fairly inactive, indicating that it takes a high level danger to excite him. Alex is truly a unique person. He literally lives for high risk rock climbing. Many of his fellow climbers with similar interests have died doing this.
Alex has spent much of his life living in a van so he can be mobile and live near the best climbing rock walls in the country during times of the year when the climbing conditions are optimal at each place. He finally breaks down and buys a house to live in, at least part of the time, with Sanni.
Alex's extensive preparations for the free solo climb of El Capitan seem to amount to a lot of fussing. Jimmy Chin and his camera crew are part of these deliberations as they plot camera positions in such a way as not to distract Alex during the climb. All this fussing over details does slow the 100-minute film to a crawl. It takes what seems to be a long time to get to the actual climb.
The climb itself is incredibly intense. Cameraman Mikey Schaefer, on the ground, armed with a massive telephoto lens, can't bear to look at the more dangerous parts of the climb. Some of the more dangerous parts of the climb are near the bottom of El Capitan. Alex starts the climb in the dark, which doesn't really seem like such a good idea. There are some surprises during the climb, too. For a vertigo-inducing look at a really dangerous climb, Free Solo is a real rush. This film rates a B.
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