E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin direct Alex Honnold in this documentary about his attempts to achieve the first free solo climb of famed El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park.
One of the best reviewed documentaries of the year suffers from my regular issue with most docs. Feature length is a bad fit. 45-60 minutes keeps a tight focus, mini series length allows you to explore far reaching ideas gracefully. 90 minutes though nearly always results in dull faff after the facts are established and before the conclusions are reached. Unlike fiction features, documentaries don’t lend themselves to sub plots or multiple character arcs. Here, we are sold on the idea that Alex Honnold’s near autistic approach to relationships and spartan existence give him the focus to achieve the near impossible within the climbing community. The daunting fatality of the El Captain rock face is essayed so that even a couch potato like me can understand the difference between this and other unassisted climbs. We look over Honnold’s shoulder as he processes the climb, studies and experiments with it with ropes and partners in advance. We see the positives and negatives of the new girlfriend in his life, creating comedy and tension. We see the film crew and his lover’s dismay as they discuss the deadly challenge they are about the be a party too. We feel their fear, their compromised feelings about enabling him in such a risky endeavour. Then the film grinds to a halt for twenty minutes. Alex postpones his climb but we can’t truly explore his internal monologue directly as he still needs to psychologically gear himself up for the task again. So we are left in limbo. When we eventually do get going, the achievement to celebrate feels more like his new found agency to go for it, rather than witnessing the actual arduous slog up the mountain. If it were 40 minutes of scene setting then a 20 minutes of climb you’d savour every grip and jump without losing any information or telling moments. At 90 his superhuman trial feels like lengthy punctuation point to a sentence already long finished. Well made but not nearly as intense as its subject deserved.