[Review] ‘THE ALPINIST’ – everything’s zen (and I free climb)

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE ALPINIST

Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.
Director: Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen
Featuring: Marc-André Leclerc, Brette Harrington, Peter Mortimer, Alex Honnold, Reinhold Messner, and Michelle Kuipers

Mountain climbers are a different breed. They are nomadic misanthropes taking to landmasses forged over millions of years and standing thousands of meters tall. Some might view their pursuits as crazy or dangerous. But their pursuit isn’t to fuel adrenaline or to live life on the edge. For an experienced climber, climbing is a form of meditation. It’s both therapeutic and physically taxing.  

As a sport, climbing has risen in popularity thanks in part to the Oscar-winning documentary FREE SOLO (about climber Alex Honnold and his journey to climb El Capitan in Yosemite without the use of a rope harness) and the series AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR (a competition show where thousands compete in a series of obstacle courses that test speed, agility, and grip strength). Once the outsiders, now mountain climbers have become minor sports celebrities; we can recognize Honnold for climbing like we would Tony Hawk and Shaun White for skateboarding and snowboarding, respectively. 

When I first heard about THE ALPINIST and saw some footage from Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s documentary, I didn’t need any other information about the subject. Even though I have never climbed, I am awestruck by those who test their physical and psychological limits in various arenas. Explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Ernest Shackleton. NASA’s Apollo program. Roger Bannister running the first sub-four-minute mile. More as it relates to this documentary, Sir Edmund Hillary, the OG of mountain climbing. He was the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest.       

At a time where we can do nearly everything with a few taps on our phone, social media has become as routine as looking at a clock to see what time is. Flooding Facebook and Instagram feeds with selfies from cliffs and mountaintops, funny memes, and GIFs to express current feelings – looking for “likes” and feedback can be as addictive as craving sugar. But what to make of a person who just wanted to do something extraordinary and not share it with the world?

This is the question Mortimer (co-director of THE DAWN WALL) and Rosen ask when they first hear about Marc-André Leclerc, who prefers to climb unobserved. To Leclerc, a free solo climb with a camera crew present isn’t a free solo climb. 

Picture the 'FREE SOLO' documentary with ice and a climber that prefers to remain elusive.
Courtesy photo.

In THE ALPINIST, the central conflict isn’t conquering a jagged, frozen monolith towering towards the heavens. A mountain is a tactile object made more impressive by its size. However, the person climbing the mountain can be just as remarkable. Yet, Leclerc climbs like most of us walk. Relaxed and nonchalant. There’s a moment when he’s resting one of his ice axes in a crevice, his crampons digging into a frozen block of ice as he regroups, and I envisioned Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. What would happen if Leclerc’s ice ax suddenly dropped?

As a climber, Marc-André Leclerc is pretty much the musician you like who is well known in certain circles but prefers to be unassuming so as not to be labeled as a sellout. He doesn’t crave money or fame.

The documentary includes a parade of talking heads as Leclerc’s girlfriend, Brette Harrington (an experienced climber and alpinist herself), friends, and notable climbers (including Alex Honnold) speak candidly about his impressive feats. The times Leclerc appears on camera he’s jovial and timid, feeling less at ease talking about himself than he would be with scaling a cliff. 

He is drawn to challenging climbs, particularly The Corkscrew on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Experienced mountaineers flock to Patagonia in the summer to ascend Cerro Torre. Leclerc goes during the off-season as snow falls and ice forms. We don’t get to see him reach the summit; Leclerc tends to be elusive and excommunicative, making it difficult to track and document his climbs. What footage we do see of Leclerc free-soloing is vertigo-inducing. At one point, I twisted my head to get a better angle of what Leclerc was scaling. I couldn’t believe it. 

THE ALPINIST doesn’t quite reach the captivating, white-knuckle heights of FREE SOLO, which builds to a thrilling third act. But directors Mortimer and Rosen get as close and personal as they can in documenting a daredevil who keeps at arm’s length and climbs like a Buddhist monk mediates—keeping everything Zen.     

Grade: B

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