With Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin.
National Geographic photographs of natural phenomena are going to astound you, so no matter what you think of this movie’s characters, or the dialogue, or the story line, the photography is going to keep you glued to your seat.
Several narrative threads are carefully developed. Besides the suspense of whether Honnold can complete what no one has ever done, a climb up an almost sheer granite mountain in Yosemite National Park called El Capitan, there is the conflict of the filmmakers, the ethical risk they face if they interfere with or distract the climber on his perilous trek and contribute to a fatal fall.
The emotional attachment of his girlfriend, Sanni, complicates his previous monomania about the climb, and chips away at his dedication to complete a climb, regardless of all risk. Before he had a girlfriend, only his mother would not be informed that he was about to climb a treacherous mountain. Now there is more at stake. A woman you love, who has taught you to hug does not want you to die, so by extension, does not want you to risk your life, which taken to its logical conclusion means she severely inhibits your goals tied to risking your life every time you climb a mountain solo, without ropes.
Another climber compares what Alex is doing to an Olympic athlete. There are two possible outcomes. He either wins a gold medal and sets an unprecedented record. Alternatively, he falls to his death.
Some of the scenes are intimate, and gripping. Sanna, the girlfriend, attractive as she is, is a bit of a buzzkill. She confronts Alex about the real risk, and he answers honestly, that he cannot give up what he loves best, not her, but climbing.
Another remarkable scene takes place in the hospital when he has his brain scanned. Alex’s supreme dedication to climbing has come at the cost of developing relationships. He lives in his van, and eats one-pan meals with his hands. One person thought he had a personality disorder; his mother suggests Aspergers. The MRI of his brain reveals his amygdala, part of the temporal lobes that detect emotional highs and lows, as very calm and resistant to sensation. This might explain Alex’s desire for the thrill of climbing under dangerous if not suicidal conditions. His brain does not register the fear that others with a normal amygdala might.
We learn about other climbers losing their lives. One climber mentions knowing 50 or 60 climbers who have died in the act. Just before Alex attempts his climb of El Capitan, news of Ueli Steck‘s death in a fall in the Himalayas breaks in the papers. Alex defies gravity and ascends the sheer side of the mountain with his extremely strong feet and hands. That he must train rigorously goes without saying. The climb lasts over three hours, in which time he must often haul his whole body up and across a flat rock where there is no margin for error.
The team of cameramen, led by Jimmy Chin, all of them also climbers, are brilliant, performing heroically, sensitive to the fact that Alex may be making his last climb. One of the men blurts out, I don’t see how you can watch. I have to look away.
And sometimes I too found myself covering my eyes, the feeling of danger was so extreme. This is one of the most harrowing movies I have ever seen. It beats action movies, superhero movies with special effects, chase scenes up and down dangerous streets. One human being proves to himself and the world that he is capable of doing something that humans were not meant to do, and he does it flawlessly.