I did not know Marc-André Leclerc's story before seeing The Alpinist. If you don't know it either, try to keep it that way before going in. The free solo climber quickly gained a reputation for making crazy climbs no one else would dare to attempt. About halfway through, I had the urge to Google him to see if he's still alive. That's how risky his excursions are. I resisted that urge, because it gives the documentary a level of suspense that would probably please Leclerc. If you do already know his story, not to worry. The film is a tribute to following one's dreams, no matter how perilous.
Early scenes introduce us to the subject, a man in his early twenties who never quite fit into mainstream society. Wandering the globe to live in a tent and climb mountains seems much more his style. Endlessly jovial in his interview segments, Leclerc describes being on a rock face as calming to his hyper mind. Everything else disappears by necessity, giving him focus.
He is drawn to dangerous climbs, sometimes even scaling frozen ice on the side of the mountains he scales. Obviously, the degree of difficulty is high, as ice can break easily. All this is done without harnesses or other routine safety equipment. It's just him and the mountain. Even Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, thinks some of these adventures are crazy.
Director Peter Mortimer has his cameras follow Leclerc on his expeditions - or as much as he can, at least. Leclerc doesn't believe he's actually doing a solo climb unless he's truly alone, so concessions, including a GoPro, have to be made. (The movie's sole problem is that we don't get to see certain climbs because Leclerc wouldn't allow it.) The footage we do get is dizzying, the kind of thing that makes you squirm in your seat while white-knuckling the armrest. The really mind-blowing part isn't that Leclerc has done the seemingly impossible on multiple occasions, it's that he has zero interest in bragging rights. Publicizing his accomplishments is not what it's about for him.
The underlying theme of The Alpinist is that Marc-André Leclerc is tempting fate. He's okay with that, because he's pursuing his dream. Those around him tolerate his passion to varying degrees. The film is a compelling portrait of a guy who cares about little else besides that dream, and if it kills him, so be it. Most of us cannot fathom such a mentality, so getting up close and personal to someone this single-mindedly driven is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Images of Leclec's climbs are stunning, helping the film achieve the level of excitement you'd get from a conventional Hollywood action picture. That, plus the astute psychological portrait of a daredevil, makes this one of the most notable sports documentaries of the last decade. Whether you think he's an inspiration or a fool, The Alpinist will keep you enthralled - and worried for Marc-André Leclerc – throughout.
out of four
The Alpinist is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.