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Ups and downs of a real-life Spider-Man

As well as sharing some dramatic and beautiful imagery of mountains, fascinating film sheds light on how Alex Honnold manages to do a horribly scary sport

13 December, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Alex Honnold in Free Solo

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Certificate PG

IT seems fitting in the week there is a film released about a chap who can scale buildings with sticky hands for grip that this gut-churning portrait of climber Alex Honnold comes out, too.
Honnold is a doyen of the simply insane hobby of free climbing – scampering up unimaginably steep cliffs without ropes.

He is a real-life Spider-Man.

Made for National Geographic – so you can guarantee the photography is stunning – we learn his father died when he was 19, and he used an inheritance to buy a van to live in and drive around mountains where he could test his ability. We pick up his story when he decides to tackle Yosemite’s 3,000ft-high El Capitan Wall.

This drives the plot. As well as sharing some dramatic and beautiful imagery of mountains, light is shed on how he manages to do this horribly scary sport. We are treated to an intriguing scene where he is given a CAT scan. Alex slides into the machine and his brainwaves are monitored. Where bursts of colour show the activity in a mere mortal’s brain, his is strangely grey. It prompts the neurologists looking at his cerebral matter to conclude that he has a much higher threshold for fear than the rest of us.

When I stand on a four-foot wall and say: “Ooh, that’s a bit hairy,” to register some activity on the monitor, Alex would have to go a few thousand feet up.

This portrayal also suggests further eccentricities. He speaks candidly about his relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless, a woman who met him at a book signing.

He shows a strange detachment towards her as he does to his own safety: as if he just doesn’t register life on an emotional level, making him even better at scaling heights.

With some simply exceptional camerawork – shots that made me shudder with terror, my tummy turn over, my eyes ache – this film takes you up to the heavens.

See it on the biggest cinema screen you can.

A fascinating story, and amazingly told.


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