Very few films are ground-breaking in a visual, technical or narrative sense. To manage all three is a rare achievement, though not nearly so remarkable as Alex Honnold.
One of the world’s most ubiquitous and well-travelled free solo climbers, watching someone suspend themselves from a mountain several hundred feet high can be nerve-wracking and even more so when there’s no rope in sight.
Chronicling Honnold’s hitherto unachieved attempt to scale the sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, the for lack of a better term grandeur of the images captured deserve to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Whether it be Honnold or a compatriot shooting up one cliff or another and on heart-pounding occasions stumbling, the clarity and intimacy of that witnessed against such vast expanses is a testament to the skill and stomach of the creative crew whose lives literally hung in the balance.
Credit must also go the technical innovation that went into this production. Faced with challenges more than uncommon in feature documentaries, but for flexibility with sound capture and else we might not be so treated. For this author, a humble intermediate at the local rock climbing gym and once member of the ‘Not Quite Alex Honnold climbing collective,’ climbing exposure or no to behold so much of these 100 minutes is in every sense sweeping.
Free Solo is fascinating separate to and beyond these aspects for the reflexive role the filmmakers were forced to play in the production and as evident in the finished product itself. A hallmark of documentary film and many features being that of the role of the filmmaker(s) in influencing events, here the matter is front and centre for the risks any presence could pose to exacerbating what is already a very dangerous scenario.
The inherent intrusiveness of a fully-fledged film crew not being a factor in any typical climb, the impact on Honnold’s endeavours and state of mind are more than teased in the subject’s own refreshing and surprisingly brazen approach to seemingly all his interactions. Honnold’s manner on its own is a consistently endearing feature of the production and the basis for most of this insight. Free Solo’s only significantly irredeeming aspect is the brief expounding, in so far as it is voiced in the documentary, of the filmmakers’ own developing reasonings and reactions to what is a less than usual and roundly consuming dilemma for any filmmaker or viewer.
No less engaging whether aware of the outcome of the feat or not and proffering levels of suspense regardless by interlacing the feature with discussion and allusions to a range of eventualities, Free Solo is a phenomenal documentary and not one suited to a small screen.
Free Solo, which screened at the Adelaide Film Festival, is in cinemas now