E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s documentary Free Solo may be the most harrowing movie you will see all year. So much so that some of the camera operators had to look away from their viewfinders! Alex Hannold is a professional rock climber and at age 30 he is at the top of his game when he decides to tackle a challenge never attempted before: climbing the 3000 foot sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitane cliff “free solo”. That is, without ropes or a partner or any other safety devices. The plan is, he will climb the massive precipice with nothing but his hands, his climbing shoes, and a tub of chalk hanging off the back of his belt. Oh, and a sense of fierce determination, let’s not forget that. Oh, and maybe it helps that his amygdala is about as responsive to a fear stimulus as a three-toed sloth (yes they do an brain MRI just for the heck of it, those crazy kids!).
Despite the cringey fear factor this documentary is really good storytelling. Chin as the rock climber cinematography specialist gets the utterly spectacular views just right, but it is presumably Vasarhelyi’s feminine perspective on this macho world that grounds—so to speak—the film with its depiction of the relationship of Hannold with his relatively new girlfriend Sanni. What happens to a guy used to risking his life for his craft when there’s a new person hanging around who would be utterly crushed by losing him? Does he make more mistakes? Maybe, as the two injuries he suffers might suggest. Does he lose his nerve? Maybe, as some delays in his timetable might suggest. It is all riveting cinema and I highly recommend you partake in the experience.