Updated: Feb 7, 2020
I am always amazed when I hear stories of people risking their lives in the name of sport or recreation. I am a feet firmly on the ground type of person. Mountain climbing seems dangerous even with all of the proper gear and experienced companions. Take those away and it becomes a life-or-death struggle with Mother Nature. The riveting documentary Free Solo is about someone who enjoys doing just that.
Free solo is when the climber is by themselves, with no equipment. The subject of the movie is Alex Honnold, a professional mountain climber who plans to climb the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park free solo. It has never been done before because it is considered to be tough even with ropes. But Alex has a dream and he will not feel complete until it is a reality. Free Solo (97 minutes without the end credits) chronicles his preparations for the attempt with a surprising amount of time spent on what drives him. It also features some of the most incredible footage I have ever seen in a documentary as he risks his life to achieve his goal.
Climbing up a precarious wall of rock with no protection, for fun, sounds like something only an insane person would do. However, Alex is a smart, likable, well-spoken guy who thinks through his work and is always very prepared. He can flaunt death without fear because he feels like he has nothing to lose. He lives in a van and has no close relationships, so he answers to no one besides himself. Climbing is his life.
As the movie begins, an intriguing complication arises. He has recently begun a relationship with a kind, supportive woman named Sanni. The scenes detailing some of their issues (she wants a commitment from him; he refuses to prioritize her over his work) adds depth to those where he is strategizing his climb. When he is at work, that is all he thinks about. When he is with her, he is still mostly thinking about his work.
Free Solo does an excellent job building toward Honnold’s date with El Capitan. It swiftly establishes who he is and how he does what he does. Then, along with Sanni, it tries to figure out why he does it. I was impressed with how thoroughly it explores his preparations. We see him climb El Capitan repeatedly, with ropes and a friend, so that he knows each obstacle as well as he can. Because of that, so do viewers. The filmmakers make Alex’s plan as understandable as possible.
Even more captivating is his climactic journey up El Capitan. The movie actually includes preparations for the filming as part of the planning. How many cameras should they use? Where should they position them so as not to distract Alex? It is bad enough they could be there for his final moments, they do not want to be responsible in any way for him falling to his death. The setup is very good, though what makes Free Solo must see are the shots of Alex alone on El Capitan, carefully moving from one hand or foot-hold to the next. The scope is awe-inspiring. The longshots showing Alex, tiny in comparison, trying to conquer this massive natural formation using only his wits and agility, are nothing short of breathtaking. I somehow felt like I was simultaneously there on the wall with him and on the ground with his friends, gasping at every movement.
While Free Solo is amazing to look at, the photography would not be nearly as effective if the filmmakers had been unable to make Alex’s story so engaging. This is not just spectacle. It is also the tale of a man who willingly battles nature, but struggles when it comes to personal matters, such as love. Giving equal time to those two aspects of his life makes the whole more impactful. I did not expect a documentary about a risk-taking mountain climber to give me insight into human nature, but here we are.
4½ out of 5
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi