Stop me if you’re heard this one: An upcoming documentary focuses on a socially awkward climber dedicated to the art of solo ascents on previously unconquered mountains and rock walls. The film, from a directing duo, depicts the art and precarious poetry of the lonely climb, without ever letting us forget the death-defying stakes, thanks in large part to the protagonist’s photogenic blond girlfriend, who can barely make eye contact with the camera when discussing her beau’s latest attempted feat.
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar-winning Free Solo casts a long shadow over Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s The Alpinist, which the filmmakers surely know. The Alpinist began production years before Free Solo premiered, but it was still being edited in 2018 — the date, not the earlier documentary, is a plot point here — and Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, is a featured talking head. Few people are likely to watch The Alpinist without having seen Free Solo, which had an extremely lucrative theatrical run and a high-profile TV/streaming platform, thanks to National Geographic.
The Bottom Line
Stunning cinematography, frustrating narrative choices.
That this comparison is neither a net win nor a net loss for The Alpinist is already somewhat complimentary. Mortimer and Rosen’s documentary offers many of the same breathless theatrical thrills that made Free Solo such a big-screen sensation, and is similarly not recommended for those with a fear of heights. It is, in some ways, a more candid and probably more truthful look at top-tier climbing than Free Solo, though it also is a story told with a certain misdirection and trickery that irritated me in ways that I could discuss in this review, but probably shouldn’t.
The Alpinist — the title here refers to the subset of climbing built around particularly difficult and aesthetically complicated ascents — focuses on 20-something Canadian climber Marc-André Leclerc. Based in British Columbia, Leclerc made his name within alpinist circles when he started setting records on established climbs and began taking unprecedented paths to other summits. One of those speed records broke a mark formerly held by Honnold, inspiring the Free Solo star to return to Canada to reclaim the mark. Honnold’s signature climbs, it should be noted, feel almost like child’s play compared to the multidisciplinary treks that Leclerc is attempting, which can require dramatic changes of footwear and equipment mid-climb, to respond to progressions from rock to snow to ice.
Partially home-schooled by his mother after an ADHD diagnosis, Leclerc never sought fame. Before his biggest achievements, he was living in a stairwell and preferred to make his climbs truly solo, though occasionally with girlfriend Brette Harrington, an accomplished climber herself. Mortimer, who started chronicling Leclerc’s life at a point the documentary keeps intentionally obscure, faced production impediments caused by his hero’s tendency to head off on adventures without notifying the film crew. The centerpiece of The Alpinist is a winter climb in Patagonia, a jaunt that Leclerc allowed only one cinematographer to join him on.
There is a sense throughout the film that somebody is being cagey, but you don’t always know who. Is it as simple as Leclerc’s discomfort being on camera? It’s clear that this film he perplexingly acquiesced to participate in violates the purity of a journey that, for him, is a much more spiritual thing compared with Honnold’s traditionally athletic perspective. Free Solo was very much about Honnold’s process, his research and his physical approach, which made the things he was doing come across as reproducible, even if they aren’t. Leclerc has maps and a weather app, but most of his process remains mysterious. But there are also the ways the filmmakers are being cagey, leaving out dates and chronology, preventing us from knowing when various talking heads were being filmed.
Leclerc’s lack of introspection — you never forget his youth — puts a lot of pressure on the other talking heads. Fortunately, The Alpinist can always count on Harrington for amusing or poignant beats. The documentary is full of fellow alpinists and the hints that some of them have stories wild enough for multiple documentaries all their own.
You’ll want to google those alpinists mid-film, which is one of several reasons The Alpinist is better seen on the biggest screen you feel comfortable watching it on (assuming the theatrical experience makes you shy about taking out your phone for online research, which it should). Like Free Solo, the cinematography is full of astonishing images, footage as prone to inducing nausea as jaw-dropping wonderment, and as with Free Solo, your greatest curiosity should be “How did they do that?” rather than trying to get out ahead of the story.
The reality is that the more you know about Marc-André Leclerc, the more you’ll be aware of how Mortimer and Rosen are tinkering with the storytelling, and the more conscious you’ll be of their storytelling choices, and probably annoyed by them. There’s an amorphous mythologizing that’s constantly in progress in the film and made me wonder if this documentary might be something like the famous fictionalized Sports Illustrated story about Sidd Finch or even, in strange moments, a mockumentary like American Vandal.
The less you know, the fewer distractions you have at your disposal, the better your chances of being too immersed in the craggy peaks, glistening frozen waterfalls and white-knuckle grips to ponder narrative structure or bigger questions — like how many films we really need glorifying a potentially deadly pastime.