Alex Honnold sets off to become the first person to climb the 3,000+ feet of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park…without ropes or harnesses.
Tense, Visual Feast;
Dare To Dream, And To Achieve;
Beautiful And Bold.
Let it never be said that you must understand someone’s goal to understand their motives, or to sympathize with them. Everyone is driven by different things, but one thing that is seemingly universal is the drive to succeed, especially on one’s own terms. In that light, while I cannot possibly comprehend having the fortitude to climb the sheer face of an impossibly high rock wall without the safety of a rope and harness system, I can understand the burning desire to see something through to its end. To set a goal and meet it. When viewed through such a lens, a feat of such strength, resolve and sheer insanity begins to make much more sense than it should at face value.
A great documentary needs both a great subject and a great object. Here, we are certainly presented with both, and each are equally fierce, albeit in different ways. El Capitan, the largest rock wall in Yosemite, is something free solo enthusiast Alex Honnold has wanted to climb for years. To look at it, even on film from the comfort of a theater seat, is to immediately experience nearly paralyzing vertigo. It immediately triggers your fear sensors to see people climbing it, even with the ropes (for practice runs to map out the best route). The thought of watching Alex take this on with only his hands and feet is terrible, yet exciting. We are a species who, deny as some may, love a gruesome spectacle. It’s that thought that maybe he will fail and fall that will inevitably draw more eyes to the film, and I can only hope they get as much out of it in the end as I did.
Visually, the movie is absolutely stunning. Filmed with a combination of shots from the ground, summit, drones and cameras mounted into the rocks, it is absolutely exhilarating and you feel as though you are right there with him, risking life and limb for the rush of achieving the impossible. Numerous times, I found myself gripping my armrests, as though somehow that would keep me from falling out of my seat. The cinematography is brilliant, as every shot during the various climbs feels like the opposite of a Bob Ross painting come to life, as you are experiencing the raw beauty of nature from as close and dangerous a position as possible, as opposed to the far away tranquility of his work. I found my eyes drifting away from Alex just so I could appreciate such incredible views of the world that I would otherwise never get to observe. It is truly a spectacle. Marco Beltrami’s score accents the visuals fantastically, giving us the same aural sense of wonder that our eyes are already attempting to process.
Amidst the incredible visuals and story being told, there are plenty of reservations to be had. Many have died attempting free solo climbs on peaks all around the world. Most of them died alone, trying to conquer nature without telling people around them of their plans. Alex himself shrugs off the thought of death, even in front of his peers and a movie crew, because his focus is so singular and precise. He may, in some dark recess of his mind, contemplate the idea of failure (and certain death), but he doesn’t show it. Whether that’s evidence of strength or denial is debatable, but what is undeniable is that nothing will stop him from attempting this feat. Some will say it is a celebration of reckless behavior, but the inclusion of his friends and colleagues expressing their grave concerns (and a cameraman who won’t even watch the climb, scared as he is for the life of his friend) keeps things, dare I say…grounded. It is a celebration, but one of believing in yourself and your goals, no matter how crazy everyone else may view them. This is a resounding success, and one that I am very glad I saw on the big screen, because I think while the overall story would remain intact at home, the visuals will lose a lot of their impact. If this is playing in your area, go see it…and hold on tight!