Free Solo (Jimmy Chin/Elizabeth Chai Vaserhalyi, 2018, USA)

Free Solo is a compelling documentary. The physical feat at the core of the film - the free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite Park - is truly incredible to watch. It is hard to see this feat and not feel at least some sense of thrill. The aerial and drone photography of the climbing is also very impressive. 
     However, at the core of the film, Free Solo is a portrait of climber Alex Honnold. Honnold is an opaque figure at the start of the film. Why is this relatively normal-seeming young man risking his life in the pursuit of this? What is driving him? The film delves deep into his background, and it becomes very apparent early on that Honnold has a spectrum disorder. He talks about social isolation early in his life, and not hugging anyone until his 20s. It is also clear that there was a sense of not being good enough very early on in his development, which drove him to intense extremes. It becomes clear that Honnold is using his climbing to struggle with his mental battles.
     The film is far from hagiographic toward Honnold. In particular we see him behaving rather callous toward his new girlfriend. It becomes clear that he is willing to sacrifice all of his personal relationships in pursuit of his goal. 
     The film also raises interesting questions about the ethics of making the film. Is Honnold being reckless? Is it worth documenting and reinforcing his reckless behavior? The filmmakers also grapple with technical questions - will shooting him climb El Cap cause him to become distracted and hamper his performance, possibly killing him? While we know what is going to happen, the tension and conflict is still quite palpable. Whatever you think of Honnold, Free Solo is a nuanced and interesting portrait of his passion.



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