Peter Mortimer & Nick Rosen
Three years ago, we were all captivated by a wild story about Alex Honnold, a rock climber whose attempt to free solo (individual climb without a rope) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park was chronicled in the Oscar winning documentary Free Solo. It was nerve-racking yet inspirational to see the lengths people are willing to push themselves. So when a film begins with an interview of Honnold talking about how he thinks someone is insane for the climbs he attempts, you know you are in for a crazy ride.
The Alpinist tells the story of Marc-Andre Leclerc, a 23 year old Canadian climber who spends his days soloing not only on rocks like Alex Honnold, but also through the mountains and across ice. This relative unknown seemed to be more legend than anything when the documentarians found him. That is because, unlike Honnold who often climbs purely for the competition, Leclerc climbs for the journey, the adventure, and the freedom of the solitude. The film crew follows Marc, along with his girlfriend Brette, over a two year period from mountain to mountain, challenge to challenge ... at least when Marc allows them to. Some climbs he escapes from his filmmakers to perform simply because a solo isn't a solo if someone is tracking him, even if it is just from a camera.
Leclerc is a fascinating character to follow. Climbing is a sport that is continuing to gain in popularity. We just saw it become an Olympic event this summer in Tokyo. Add that to the fame brought to Alex Honnold and the sport in general through Free Solo, and climbing has become quite a trending activity. This is what makes Marc fascinating. He doesn't want the fame, he doesn't want the notoriety, he doesn't want the competition. He just want to climb. At one point, he accidentally breaks a speed record of Alex Honnold. Honnold immediately returns to the rock and reclaims his record. Marc never tried again because the record wasn't a good enough reason to climb. He instead is constantly looking for the next new challenge simply to entertain himself. It's such a rare quality to be so good and care so little that anyone knows.
It's impossible to watch this movie and not compare it to Free Solo. It invites those comparisons by having Alex Honnold be the first voice you hear talking about Marc-Andre Leclerc. So let's compare. Both films are beautifully shot. The settings make it easy to make a pretty film, but they both definitely capture the visuals well. I might give an edge to The Alpinist in its direction. They find ways to get some incredible shots and angles of the climbing, and with Leclerc climbing all over the world, it provides a much more varied landscape than the single-minded Free Solo. With that said, what makes The Alpinist more interesting visually makes it less interesting narratively. One of the things that makes Free Solo so special is the focus of the story. One man, one rock, one challenge ... go. On the other side, what makes Marc-Andre Leclerc a unique character hurts the film in building drama. He moves so quickly from challenge to challenge that it removes so of the drama you see in Free Solo. Also, Leclerc's tendency to need the solitude also forces the filmmakers to lose a level of drama that you gain from the open book that is Alex Honnold. One difference that sets The Alpinist apart is the ending, which has a very different vibe than Free Solo.
With all this said, The Alpinist is a an incredible documentary that is worth a view, especially on the big screen. Marc-Andre Leclerc is a dynamic personality that is magnified by the fact that fame makes him so uncomfortable. In terms of the inevitable comparison, I would say Free Solo is the better film thanks to the focus of its narrative and that it is what introduced so many of us to the sport. With that said, The Alpinist is an incredible companion piece focusing on a very different, but just as intriguing solo climber.