What Great Heights

Free Solo directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

My palms are sweaty as I type this. 

Every summer Hollywood studios spend billions of dollars developing movies that are meant to get your pulse racing. Yet for all the A-list actors, cutting edge special effects, elaborate comic book source material, summer blockbusters are often terribly underwhelming.

Not so with the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo. It is an absolute break-out-in-a-cold-sweat thriller, and a much simpler story, too: a man, a towering rock and an attempt to do something no one has ever done before.

That man is Alex Honnold. He’s a rock climber, and his speciality is “free solo climbing,” which eschews the use of any ropes or harnesses. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly risky way to scramble up a cliff. But Honnold seems unfazed by risk. At one point in the film they slide him into a MRI and note that his amygdala – the key brain component for emotion and survival instincts – doesn’t light up like it should. He literally doesn’t feel fear like the rest of us do. 

Which is surely one of the reasons he’s willing to stand at the foot of El Capitan, a 3000 foot wall of granite in Yosemite National Park, and attempt to climb it without any safety equipment. The slightest slip or stumble would cost him his life. And therein lies the thrill, and I suppose, the guilt of watching this film. Honnold’s girlfriend Sanni stands in for the audience with her mix of awe and dread at what he’s attempting to do.

With stunning, vertiginous, innovative cinematography, Free Solo depicts one of the greatest athletic feats in the history of the human species. It also explores the grip our obsessions have on us, interrogates our desire to climb past creaturely limits, and shows the apparently fine line between sheer genius and reckless stupidity.  

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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