What kind of person looks at Yosemite’s El Capitan and thinks, “I want to climb almost a kilometre up that vertical rock. Without ropes.”? Even Captain James T. Kirk only survived his attempt because he had Spock nearby in a pair of anti-gravity boots. That’s the question about Alex Honnold’s attempt at one of the holy grails of climbing. His preparation and training for that feat form the backbone of this unusually passionate documentary, made by climber Jimmy Chin and filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarheyli. The couple are close friends of their subject, which would often be a concern for documentary objectivity. But here, their concern for his well-being shades the story in a way that only adds to the tension, without papering over Honnold’s flaws or small failings.
The climbing cinematography by Chin and his team is vertiginous and literally breathtaking – they claim there are no atheists in foxholes; certainly there are none watching this – and worth seeing on a huge screen. But it’s the riddle of Honnold himself that drives the film. Why do this? In particular, why do this when you have a new girlfriend you’re falling in love with? The drive towards danger seems inexplicable even to Honnold himself at least to some degree, but the exploration of his family, friends and very brainwaves shed a little light. Which, of course, only makes the risk seem greater. He’s a wryly funny and deeply intelligent character, and soon your heart will be in your mouth every time he trusts his life to a single toenail. Again.