Alex Honnold is, in his girlfriend’s words, “a weird dude”.
As Free Solo opens, he’s shown living in a cramped old van, cooking up an unappetising-looking but vegie-laden dinner which he then proceeds to eat with a spatula straight from the frypan.
It’s an illuminating scene: Honnold is a largely solitary character who cares little for home comforts or the pleasures that might be found in material things.
Instead, he is driven by a single-minded goal: to reach his next summit as a free soloist climber (a climber who climbs alone without ropes or safety gear). And his current obsession? Reaching the top of the notorious El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park, renowned as “the centre of the rock-climbing universe”.
“I’ll never be content until I at least put in the effort …” he says.
“El Cap is the most impressive wall on earth.”
Climbing the wall with ropes is treacherous enough, and no one has previously free-climbed to the summit. This makes it a particularly attractive challenge for Honnold, who is shown doing training climbs in Morocco and practising some of the more dangerous sections of El Capitan with his friend and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell.
The cinematography is stunning, from close-ups of fingers and feet as they struggle to find precarious handholds and footholds in the granite rockface, to wide-angle shots showing the vast beauty of the landscape in which the climber appears like a mere insect clamped to a monolith. The film crew’s skills are mind-boggling.
The real genius of directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, however, is in how they have successfully interwoven the story of the mission with that of the man.
Revelations about Honnold’s family life and upbringing give some insight into why he is driven to undertake such seemingly mad endeavours, and a brain scan conducted during the filming process also proves illuminating.
The climber’s idiosyncrasies, dry wit and matter-of-fact view of life add a touch of humour throughout, as do aspects of his relationship with his stoic girlfriend, who is made acutely aware that solo free climbing is his first love.
The dangers of Honnold’s mission are brought home during filming with the death of one of his fellow free climbers, prompting him to comment blithely:
Everybody who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now
No matter, the climb must go on.
Free Solo’s Australian premiere screening at the Adelaide Film Festival was packed with climbing enthusiasts, but the film is gripping viewing for a much broader audience, with audible gasps during what are literally do-or-die moments.
Interestingly, Honnold himself seems to take little pleasure in the beauty of the spectacular landscape that surrounds him, or even the view from the top: for him, it’s all about the pursuit of perfection; the conquering of the cliff face.
As long as he keeps finding those footholds, that quest seems unlikely to end, but as a fellow climber warns:
“If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you will find the edge.”
Free Solo will screen again this Thursday at the Mercury Cinema as part of the Adelaide Film Festival. See more Adelaide Film Festival stories and reviews here.