'Free Solo' Is Already A Front-Runner For Documentary Of The Year
There are lots of sporting moments that momentarily leave you thinking that they're one of the all-time greatest, however there are only a few actual feats of athletic prowess that go beyond all conversations of sporting magic and earn their place in the annals of human achievement.
Think Usain Bolt's 9.58 second hundred metre dash, for instance.
Alex Honnold's 2017 free solo ascent of El Capitan, a 3000 ft rock in California's Yosemite national park, is one of said achievements, one that completely redefined what anyone thought the limits of human endurance, strength, mental focus and calm under pressure could be.
The New York Times famously wrote that it "should also be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever," while The New Yorker went one step further, suggesting that it was compared globally "to the moon landing, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and the mutant evolution of the X-Men."
Free Solo, a new documentary from Nat Geo films, captures this achievement in all its immense glory, and it's by a long way one of the best documentaries we've ever seen.
For those still devoid of context, El Capitan serves essentially as the centre of the rock climbing universe: a towering 3000ft wall of granite that boasts some of the most challenging rock climbing routes known to man.
Honnold became the first person to "Free Solo" it, meaning he climbed it without any assistance and without any ropes. It's exactly as insane as it sounds.
The film, which currently sits at a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes by the way, captures not just Honnold's final, extraordinary ascent of the wall, but also his journey to get there, including the months of rehearsals he had to endure to master the route's trickiest sections, and the way he prepared his body and mind to tackle what is arguably the greatest climb ever accomplished.
Perhaps more importantly, it also cuts Honnold as a rather sad figure — one starved of affection and emotional development as a child — and leaves the viewer to figure out whether or not it's necessarily a positive thing that it's allowed Honnold to become the cool, calculating person that he is today.
This is brought into sharp relief through the medium of his new girlfriend: a person constantly torn between allowing Alex to do what he loves (something that will almost certainly kill him eventually) and her own desire to make a meaningful relationship with him.
It also wonderfully captures the ethical and emotional battles of the filmmakers themselves — many of whom are climbing enthusiasts and friends of Honnold's in some way — who constantly haunted by the spectral prospect of filming their friend fall to his death at any moment.
Of course, as the Trailer suggests, the film shines most when it depicts Alex doing what he's best at — climbing. And the way it does so, with the filmmakers following him up and down this magnificent face, is enough to leave you in a constant state of stunned horror.
Never before have we seen a film that drew more audible gasps, more uncomfortable seat shifting, and more sweaty palms from the collective audience.
It's an exhausting journey to undertake as a viewer, but the film's natural horror is perfectly balanced with the scope of the achievement you knew you were witnessing: one that should, and will, go down as one of the all-time greatest athletic feats.
Go and watch it. It'll leave you breathless, but you won't be sorry. Just maybe take a chalk bag.