TIFF 2018: Free Solo

Alex Honnold climbs up El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park in Free Solo. Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films.

Free Solo documents free soloist Alex Honnold in his attempt to climb the Freerider route (2,900 feet) of El Capitan in the Yosemite National Park.

Alex Honnold is seen a phenomenon in the eyes of free soloist climbers.  It’s a dangerous profession–one that surely holds a risk given how ropes are not involved.  One wrong move while climbing and it’s life or death.  Co-directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow the climber every step of the way.  If you’ve ever wondered how filmmakers tackle these type of projects, we get an inside look at their setup.  This is because Chin and many of those with cameras are fellow climbers.  It’s that expertise and camera framing that help drive the film’s success.

While Honnold has climbed this mountain for a number of years, he’s never done it by himself and without a rope.  The lack of a rope is pertinent to the details because it means that you have to be absolutely perfect while climbing.  This is where the insight from other climbers, such as Dawn Wall free climber Tommy Caldwell, come in handy.  One of the most striking statistics is that among those people who climb, less than 1% have attempted over 1,000 solo climbs.  This is what makes someone like Alex Honnold all the more impressive as a climber.

A number of free soloists have lost their lives by climbing.  That they are shown in the film serves as an “in memoriam” segment.  This only goes on to prove how dangerous free climbing is.  The lack of any protective equipment leads this profession to be a suicide mission so to speak.

The filmmakers are able to capture his training process with everything it entails.  While appearing on a book tour for Alone on the Wall, Sanni McCandless gives him her phone number and they start a relationship.  One reason why this film succeeds is we are able to see a candid look into their lives.  How does Sanni respond to Alex going on this life-or-death dream?

One can look at the documentary as being a companion peace to that of the SXSW-premiering documentary of Tommy Caldwell, The Dawn Wall.  Interestingly enough, Caldwell makes an appearance and offers his thoughts on Honnold’s climb.  Where Caldwell had done that climb with a friend, Honnold does this climb all by himself.

While the film was not filmed with the IMAX experience in mind, Free Solo is a thrilling documentary that begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

DIRECTORS:  Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
FEATURING:  Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Cheyne Lempe, Mikey Schaefer, Sanni McCandless, Dierdre Wolownick, Peter Crof

Free Solo held its international premiere during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in the TIFF Docs program.  National Geographic Documentary Films will open the film on September 28, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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