When it comes to fears and phobias, I can happily say that heights don’t scare me. If anything, I like the feeling of being high up and looking down at my surrounding below. It’s fascinating and awe-inspiring. And it’s even better when I know I’m safe and can enjoy these views in a safe way. Which is why I felt extremely nervous watching ‘Free Solo’.
‘Free Solo’ is a National Geographic documentary that follows rock climber Alex Honnold through his 2-year preparations to climb the 3,200 ft El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite National Park…without the use of any safety equipment.
There’s thrill-seeking…and then there’s this! This is not only an incredible achievement that Honnold fulfilled, but also a terrifying one once you think about it; one little mistake and that’s it. And the cinematography captures the scale of the mountain fantastically, with the use of regular low angle shots when the mountain is displayed.
The amount of research that goes into a project like this was surprising, but ultimately understandable. Before the climb could be made, the El Capitan had to be climbed, with the use of harnesses, and analysed. These were in terms of the various surfaces and cliff heights the mountain had, which route was best to take when climbing to the top to even calculating what time of day would be the best time to start, otherwise the sunlight would be a distraction. It’s something I’ve never had to think about, but it was an eye-opener into how these types of feats are practised.
The film not only looks at Alex’s approach to the dangerous task and his thoughts on this, but it also points the camera at the film crew itself, and the way in which they would have to film the actual climb. Halfway through, it’s quickly realized that, during his first attempt at making the solo climb, the crew can’t film Alex at a close range, whilst on harnesses following him, because it becomes a distraction and an annoyance.
His mindset is different because he’s aware he’s being filmed. Therefore, the crew had to use a powerful camera zoom, a drone and be at an extremely far distance from El Capitan to film the final climb, which is shown near the end of the film. It was interesting to see the two perspectives of the project: the rock climber and the film crew. The latter perspective is something that isn’t often shown in documentaries, so this was a fascinating route to take that worked seamlessly.
And then the last 15-20 minutes of ‘Free Solo’ was essentially the audience being given a front row seat to the main event: the solo climb of El Capitan. The third act is nail-biting but intriguing; I wanted to look away but couldn’t bring myself to do so; this had to be seen to be believed. Even one of the film crew members looks away after a certain point!
‘Free Solo’ is a fascinating but stressful experience. It provides a unique perspective into solo climbing, as well as how the filming of the climb would’ve been done. The cinematography does a fantastic job of showing this achievement as incredible, but also dangerous.
This was a project that took years to prepare for, and it shows. And, while I was holding my breath for a lot of this film, I’m glad I watched it and I hope more people watch this incredible documentary too.
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