Free Solo

Year: 2018
Production Co: Little Monster Films
Studio: National Geographic
Director: Jimmy Chin/Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

No, it's not an erstwhile sequel to Solo: A Star Wars Story as free association in my brain kept telling me every time I thought of it. It refers to the sport/pursuit of rock climbing without a rope, and this is the story of a guy named Alex Honnold who wanted to be the first person to do it on El Capitan, a rock face in Yosemite National Park.

Everyone in the documentary can tell you until they're blue in the face how dangerous it is, and you certainly believe it – there are asides about other climbers (including people Alex and the crew know) who've died doing similar things. But being a movie, you kind of have a sense deep in your limbic system everything and everyone's going to be okay.

That is until one moment that had me gasping. It's a long shot of a climber on a rock, from above, and he/she misses the simplest of handholds, slips and goes plummeting. You go hot and cold until a parachute opens and the fortunate soul glides away safely, but that's the moment you realise what Honnold is up against.

El Capitan isn't just vertical, in some spots it's completely sheer, and the most amazing part of conquering it is how – having done it roped a hundred times – Honnold and the filmmakers talk in incredibly fine detail about where to move a foot or a finger as they peer at the various stages through cameras from the ground kilometres away.

And with such fine detail, it means the most inhuman stretches, holds, grips and grasps using the merest of shifts in weight and body parts, where it's obvious that only a few millimetres or grams could mean a long and fatal trip to the rocks nearly a kilometre below.

Most of the film is the set-up of the climb, including deciding to actually do it, interspersed with a bit about Honnold's background and developing interest. It doesn't go too deeply into the deep philosophy of what he's doing but there is a human dimension, especially the tension between his Aspergers-like emotional stuntedness and the openness of the girl he starts seeing during the planning.

If there's one niggle – and it's one you could level at almost any documentary really – it's that it has a slightly scripted quality, as if everyone involved (including Honnold, despite his seeming reluctance and bemusement to have a film made about his attempt) knows there's a camera around.

After he aborts an initial attempt because all the attention, cameras and eyes on him is making him feel crowded, it's a little bit suspicious that when he does finally go for it, it's all captured by nearby drone anyway – and I mean nearby, so close you can see the sweat breaking across his forehead.

But none of that detracts from the attempt or accomplishment, and even if you're only there for the heart-pounding visuals instead of the human story, your stomach will plunge more than once.

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