Free Solo introduces us to Alex Honnold, a rock climber who in 2017 became the first (and only) person to perform a free solo climb (without the assistance of any safety ropes or harnesses) on the El Capitan Wall in Yosemite National Park. The documentary follows Alex as he prepares for the big climb, showing us who he is and what he’s up against, before we follow him up the 7,500-foot rock formation.
While Free Solo is very much a story about an incredible human accomplishment, the documentary smartly puts a lot of focus on the El Capitan itself, and on the breathtaking scenery around it. This is a film that celebrates nature as much as its protagonist, and is absolutely gorgeous as a result. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and their fellow cameramen (themselves key characters in this documentary) go well beyond just capturing the incredible vistas and landscapes in the film; they keep you on the edge of your seat as they climb the wall along with Alex (albeit with safety gear). Not only does it add some extra anxiety as they are quite open about their fear of distracting him and inadvertently causing his death, but by staying up close and personal with Alex as he tries to shimmy around the cliff’s toughest spots keeps you holding your breath despite the fact you know he’s going to make it in the end.
The film also does a great job on educating you on the wall itself, digging into specifically challenging sections and explaining the various approaches that can be taken and all the risks associated with them. You spend a lot of time with Alex scaling the wall in safety gear beforehand as he gets to know the climb, and watch him and others slip and fall in their harnesses. Even though his ultimate success is a foregone conclusion, the insight you feel like you have on El Capitan, and having seen certain sections go wrong for Alex earlier on, allow Free Solo to fill you with both suspense, and a technical fascination.
While these little touches do go on to make the climb itself a wonder to behold, the background knowledge that he’s going to succeed does suck a lot of the tension out of the film before we get there. There’s a lot of great exploration into Alex and his world, but I did find myself checking my watch as the second act stretched on just a bit too much. It’s a sin that’s quickly forgotten once Alex begins his triumphant ascent, but the film does nonetheless feel a bit uneven as a result and could possibly have benefited from a less linear structure.
Luckily Alex himself is likeable and intriguing enough that getting to know him over the first half of the film is pretty interesting in and of itself. There’s no doubt something life affirming about his enthusiasm and courage, but there’s a real melancholy to him as well that’s both uncomfortable and fascinating. He’s incredibly passionate about what he does and is well aware of the risks he takes, but it’s hard to shake the hints of detachment he exhibits whenever he’s confronted with how quickly it can all be over for people in his community. Death to him is almost like stepping on gum, something to be avoided if possible, but not something to get caught up on. It’s clear that the psychological element is critical to succeeding (and surviving) his hobby, but it’s hard to watch the effects his shrugging off has on the people who love him. He’s a fascinating subject, and has left me still wondering whether I think it’s extremely selfish, or extremely kind, that he never tells his mother or girlfriend when he’s leaving to attempt a free solo climb. Only after, when he’s survived it.
Free Solo presents a fascinating window into its titular hobby. It’s beautifully shot and perfectly captures both the suspense of the climb, and the wonder of nature. Though there is a niggling feeling in the back of your mind reminding you that he did already do it, the examination into Alex’s world and the thrill of the third act easily outweigh any nitpicks.
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‘Free Solo’ opened in limited theatrical release in the US on September 28, 2018 and opened in limited theatrical release in Australia on January 24.