Film Review: Free Solo

Free Solo is an experience that few films can deliver, it is a literal life or death character study of one of the most unique real-life characters I’ve seen put up on-screen; chronicling, possibly, the greatest physical feat in human history?

Alex Honnold is not like anyone I’ve ever seen. Well, I shouldn’t say that, I’ve known people without his ability to emote like most people do, but his willingness to risk his life in a way few people in the world do, by free soloing big walls, is what really sets him apart. His attempt to free solo El Capitan is the center of this documentary, but there is a lot more to it than just showing us the climb.

The film is a wonderful portrait of Honnold, as we get to peek into his lifestyle and watch as he contemplates not just what makes him want to climb this way, but why he might not be able to love and form relationships because of it. A girlfriend gets folded into the mix very early into the plan to solo El Capitan, and she, Sanni McCandless, becomes almost as challenging for Honnold as his perspective climb. That’s not to say she is some over demanding women or unfair to him, not in the slightest, she might actually be too amenable to his demeanor at times. The challenge is that Honnold might actually be worrying about something, doubting his free spirit approach to climbing and the death that might come with it.

But that’s just one layer, as there is another element to the film that makes it all the more compelling. This documentary is being made by some of Honnold’s best friends and they know the stakes. They might film their friend’s death and they have the weight of what they are doing might be affecting his ability to complete the task. As we get closer to the climb, we get to see a bit more behind the scenes of the filmmaking as well, as the film becomes a documentary of the documentary, within the documentary. Does that make sense? I think the film’s directors, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, do a great job of blending all of the above together and do a wonderful job of coaxing out Honnold’s thought process on everything happening around him.

This is all great stuff, but the real showstopper is the big event that ends the film. Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan. The editing, the seemingly impossible shots, the HEIGHT, is all awe-inspiring. The tension, the inability to watch, the suspense if it is even happening or not. There is so much amazing going on here, but it is Honnold’s insane physical feat that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. Watching his climb this thing is just insane, especially if you’ve ever stood underneath El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. You can’t even imagine what is going through Honnold’s head or how he has the endurance to pull this off. It’s mind blowing to watch.

Free Solo is an experience that you can rarely find in the movies. You can’t believe what you are seeing and all of it really happened. Vasarhelyi and Chin take us right along Honnold on his climb, in one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year. I don’t think I’ve had a more exhilarating experience in a theater in some time.

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