Free Solo (2018), directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi


One of the good things about going to see a film about a topic you have little to know interest in is that it can often open up an allowance of time to study the formal semiotics during viewing. This is why I enjoy watching Match of the Day with my dad so much – because I don’t understand what anyone is talking about, I am able to watch the body language of the men as they talk unhindered by the meaning of their speech.

Free Solo is a documentary directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about mountain climber Alex Honnold and his feat free-soloing Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall (without ropes). Like the climb itself which is broken into segments, some indicating particular difficulty, Alex’s journey to the point of the climb is marked by aspects of his life. These areas of inquiry include family backstory, a current romantic relationship, brain scans and physical training in an attempt to uncover the mindset of someone performing such danger for what ostensibly seems to be… fun?

Alex is not particularly likeable, clearly more absorbed by dimpled granite and the honing of techniques needed to climb such surfaces than other people. His inability to emotionally engage with others (especially his girlfriend Sonni) in a “normal” way caused chuckles in the screening I was in, though it also resonated as sad and difficult when placed next to Sonni’s emotionally open love and adoration.

The photography of the climb is impressive, shots from above making my body physically wriggle in pleasurable discomfort as I witness his body shrink to tiny nothingness against the vast and awesome plains of vertiginous granite.

My feelings toward Alex as a person oscillated throughout the films duration. Though I have no interest in climbing, it would be ridiculous not to find the scaling of nature impressive and, through Alex and other climbers shown and interviewed, it is easy to respect their relationship to the magnificent walls they are obsessed by.

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