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Free Solo - A review

Everyone kept asking me: “Have you seen Free Solo yet?” with raised eyebrows and an earnest expression. I hadn’t, but I had been following Alex Honnold’s exploits with great interest for some years. I had formed an opinion of him as a cool guy who happened to have a rather different view on life and death to the majority of society.

The film had got people talking, and not just climbers. I would pass people in shops and on the street having conversations about ‘this guy who climbed a 3000-foot cliff in Yosemite without ropes’. I felt I needed to see it, I should see it, but wondered- could it live up to the hype?

I finally went to see it in the cinema taking two daughters with me (aged 10 and 13). After a soul-sapping half hour of adverts, the film began.

Now this is not a film of someone soloing El Cap. This is a character study of what kind of person would do it, a chronicle of the events leading up to it, an exploration of the surrounding circumstances, and an analysis of the effects that such an act has on all the people involved. It manages all this without preaching, or spoon-feeding the audience any morality. Events are merely presented as they happened. Personalities are discovered, warts and all, through seeing the interactions between people in a very unforced way.

It is laid out in simple terms how Alex became a soloist. Maybe a little too simple in fact, almost implying that anyone who gets into climbing and has an aversion to social interaction has to solo. A foregone conclusion? I think there’s a bit more to that part of the story.

The first surprising thing for me was that Alex is not portrayed as a saint by any means. He is single-minded about his goal, regardless of the emotional toll on those around him. This is a mindset entirely necessary to achieve what he does though. There would be no film without it. No climb. No Alex.

The second thing was the tension. Yep, I went to see a film about someone soloing El Cap and was surprised by the tension. But I found this really stressful. Maybe because, by the time he starts his final attempt you have seen enough to feel that you know him, you like him, you don’t want anything to happen to him. An insight into the feelings of the film crew perhaps. The inclusion of their reactions also lends to the feeling that this is not just a show. They are scared.

Maybe it’s because the photography is incredibly well done. Immersive and visceral to the point that as a climber you feel there with Alex on the wall. There is a conveyance of those feelings of friction, balance, effort. All of which we normally associate with the real and immediate risk of failure.

Just watching the trailer gives me tingles in fingers and toes.


Maybe it’s because we’ve seen the training footage with Tommy Caldwell of all people falling off the crux. This is obviously no walk in the park!

Whatever the reason- I found this more harrowing than anything else I have ever seen on film, fact or fiction. It’s the only thing that has caused me to wake in the night afterward feeling anxious and sweaty. I guess it’s this level of emotional reaction that the filmmakers were aiming for and for me they absolutely hit the mark.

Awesome is a horribly overused word these days but hopefully enough people will see this film to infuse some meaning back into it. This was truly a quantum leap in human athletic achievement. Difficult to fully comprehend in many ways, beyond what many people would have considered possible. It certainly provoked feelings of awe in me.

The film serves as a worthy record of how it happened. I would recommend watching it to anyone. Will you find it inspiring, terrifying, unjustifiable or outrageous? Any viewer’s reactions are their own.

Free Solo – A review

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