REVIEW: “Free Solo”


“If you’re seeking perfection free-soloing is as close as you can get.” That statement from 33-year-old American rock climber Alex Honnold is one of many from the documentary “Free Solo” that gets us into the head of a man who does something so terrifying and dangerous yet at the same time utterly remarkable.

For those who don’t know, free-soloing is rock climbing with no protective gear – no ropes, no harnesses, no nothing. It’s an undertaking with a margin of error next to zero. It’s something that’s easy for some to dismiss as ‘crazy’ (the movie even explores that possibility from a medical point of view). But “Free Solo” attempts to challenge that perspective by putting as much of its focus on the man who is Alex Honnold as it does his magnificent and unfathomable feats.


The film documents Honnald’s physical and mental preparation leading up to his attempt at free-soloing El Capitan, a menacing yet beautiful rock formation standing at 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park. Husband and wife co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who also did the excellent 2015 climbing doc “Meru”) follow Honnald through his excitement, trepidations, and insecurities.

Honnald grew up a loner by his own admission who was effected by his parents divorce despite noting they were both happier afterwards. What impacted him more was the death of his father who was a big supporter of his climbing. You get the sense that this pushed Honnald to challenge himself even more, often losing himself in free-soloing. It didn’t allow for many long-lasting relationships. The exception was Sanni McCandless, a self-proclaimed patient person but with self-respect. We see that tested as the El Capitan climb draws closer.


As Chin and Vasarhelyi showed in “Meru” they have a knack for capturing both the beauty and danger of the climb. Here the risk is intensified and the consequences are evident in ever stunning and at times dizzying shot. And the camera puts a heavy emphasis on the precarious nature of the climb (sometimes a foothold is on nothing more than the tiniest dent in the rock face). It’s exhilarating, terrifying and it begs to be watched on the largest screen possible.

Alex Honnald is as fascinating as he is enigmatic and soaking up his story proves to be a satisfying experience. Yet despite the amount of time we spend with him it’s hard to get into his headspace. I never had a good grasp of how he thinks and of what makes the guy tick. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe “Free Solo” isn’t trying to get us to understand Honnald. Maybe it just wants us to respect him and the daring choices he makes. But I guess I am as unsure of that as I am the man himself.



REVIEW: “Meru”

Meru poster

Nestled in the heart of India’s Garwhal Himalayas stands a beautiful yet ominous mountain called Meru Peak. Topping at an elevation of 21,850 feet, the mountain features three peaks, one being Meru Central which is considered by mountaineers as one of the world’s toughest climbs. Meru Central features a 4000 foot granite wall called the Shark’s Fin and the route around it has been tried and failed by the world’s best climbers.

This documentary tells the story of three climbers who first attempted to conquer the Shark’s Fin in 2008. The three determined men endure a major storm, harsh temperatures, and a shortage of supplies only to be forced back down a few feet away from conquering the peak. It’s disappointing and demoralizing for the team but it is nothing compared to the adversity each would individually face in the three years that followed.

Early into the film it’s easy to see these guys as nothing more than free-spirited adrenaline junkies. You would have to be a bit crazy to take the deadly risks they take and to put your body through the stress they do. But after the failed attempt to summit Meru, team leader and one the world’s best climbers Conrad Anker, his trusted partner Jimmy Chin (who also directed, co-produced, and shot the film), and young but trustworthy Renan Ozturk each experience personal tragedies or near-death experiences that completely alter their lives.

The documentary takes a detour from climbing to look at these tragedies and show us the effects they had on these men. Tackling Meru was no longer important. Life had taken darker turns and each man was bearing his own heavy burden. Through this Anker, Chin, and Ozturk become more to us than adrenaline junkies. It grounds them on the most human levels. As a result we empathize with them when they decide to go back to Meru Central. We understand their personal motivations and we too see this as more than just a climb.

At times you may feel like your watching one big North Face advertisement. The logo seems to be in every shot. There are also moments where the narrative transitions are a little rocky. Other than that “Meru” hits every important note you want from a documentary. But it also has an intriguing structure that teases you to make negative assumptions before unveiling its deeper human component. That is when I knew “Meru” had a lot more going on under its surface. I ended up caring about these men, empathizing with their perspectives, and reflecting on my own viewpoints. I love it when a film is able to pull that kind of reaction out of me.


4 Stars