Synopsis: Follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed arguably the greatest feat in rock climbing history.
Stars: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin
Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: One of the benefits of reviewing movies is we’re often sent screening links in advance of a film being released into theaters. Free Solo arrived in my inbox on a wave of positive reviews and good buzz coming out of the early festivals it played at. Around the same time a podcast I know and trust said the movie was best experienced on the big screen if at all possible so I opted to hold off on a home viewing in favor of a theatrical exhibition. So the link sat there and went unwatched until it expired. Ouch. And then I missed it when it was released in theaters! Double ouch.
Fortunately for me (and for you), the movie gods have smiled in our favor and saw fit to re-release Free Solo for one week in IMAX theaters and when you’re done reading this review I’d suggest you find the theater nearest you and get your butt in a seat pronto.
This documentary from National Geographic directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is likely headed for an Oscar nomination and after witnessing the stunning work that went into capturing free soloist Alex Honnold’s landmark climb it’s not hard to see why. Famous for his rapid ascents on some of the world’s largest rock formations, Honnold was already a superstar in the climbing world but his 2017 journey 3,000 feet up El Captain in Yosemite National Park made him a legend.
A free soloist works without the aid of ropes or other protective equipment. Rising far above a safe distance, any wrong move would likely mean death so it’s totally on the strength (mental and physical) of the climber to navigate a route that will keep them alive. For the armchair adventurist, this is right up there with swimming with sharks without a cage or skydiving out of a plane while trying to put your parachute on. Any mistake and you’re a goner.
Honnold is one of the most fascinating subjects for a documentary I’ve seen in some time because his seeming ambivalence to his own mortality is strikingly bold. A lone wolf that lives in a van even though he’s made a considerable amount of money off of endorsements and sales of his book, he lives to climb and seeks out every opportunity to push himself further and further. Some may say he has a death wish but he’s actually looking to challenge himself in new ways that just happen to have a considerable amount of risk to it. How many of us are that willing to go such a great distance?
The film follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb he’s long dreamed of while at the same time exploring the seeds of a growing relationship. In the past, Honnold has kept girlfriends and family at a distance because it’s easier to go into these high-stakes situations with as few emotional attachments as possible but this one seems different. With this romantic development comes new distractions that weren’t there before, playing tricks with Honnold’s focus that ultimately proves dangerous. And then there’s the question of being filmed in the first place. Is he making this milestone trek for himself or because there are cameras present? What responsibility do the filmmakers have in this situation where they could be filming Honnold’s final climb?
With a filmmaking crew made up of experienced climbers and utilizing skilled technology that allowed them to capture incredible moments without getting in Honnold’s way, the directors have made a documentary that almost feels like a feature film. I could easily see this being translated to a narrative feature with it’s emotional arc, false starts, tragedies, and triumphs. Yet it always feels immediate and honest. Constantly checking in by reminding us how far up he’s climbing, Chin and Vasarhelyi give us stunning views in the midst of incredible tension. If your palms don’t sweat and your heart doesn’t beat faster during the final 20 minutes of the film then you’re made up of stronger stuff than I am.