You-are-there adventure documentaries have the built-in hook of watching someone risk their life; this one soars by providing a terrific portrait of the life that’s at risk. Co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) follow mountain-climber Alex Honnold, as he pursues his dream of free-climbing California’s 3,200-foot El Capitan peak—free-climbing, as in without a rope. The filmmakers provide plenty of rich detail on the dangers of free-climbing and the potential trouble points in the El Capitan climb, and provide a meta-level to the narrative by showing Chin and his cinematographers wondering if their presence might affect Honnold’s concentration. But the richest material provides a full sense of Honnold as a person, from the impact of his childhood on his need to pursue achievement, to the effect of his new romantic relationship on his life; there’s even a great bit of insight from an MRI that suggests his brain barely processes “danger” as a concern. The climactic attempt itself only takes up around 20 minutes of the 100-minute running time, but the breathtaking footage does more than simply build tension; it builds to something genuinely emotional.
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Producer: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, Shannon Dill, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Tim Pastore and Matt Renner
Cast: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni McCandless and Jimmy Chin