Review: "Free Solo" Performs at the Highest Level

Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Alex Honnold is the only person in human history to free solo climb Yosemite’s El Capitan. That means climbing without a partner, without a rope, with nothing guaranteeing your safety but your own ability and concentration. It is, many would say, the greatest athletic feat ever performed and it requires a perfect performance. In Honnold’s eyes, there’s nothing in the world better than the feeling of performing perfection.
Free Solo, the documentary that follows Honnold through two years of preparation for that historic climb, understands this entirely. There’s nothing human beings crave more than excellence than achieving the impossible by climbing whatever mountains there may be. But directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi aren’t just interested in that performance; they’re interested in the life that’s built around it.

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
First and foremost, Free Solo is a climbing movie. A large chunk of the film is devoted to his physical training, to his practice runs on El Capitan, and, of course, to the actual free solo climb. Chin, Vasarhelyi, and their dedicated camera team went to great lengths to get the angles necessary for drawn out, tense scenes of Honnold holding onto a mountain several thousand feet in the air with just his thumb and forefinger. It’s impossible to watch without holding your breath and covering your eyes every once in a while. Which is to say, they absolutely succeeded.
But the film is also a character study of Alex Honnold. It examines his life, his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, his family, and his relationships with everyone around him. It digs, quite literally, into his brain in ways you’d never expect. Some moments are so personal, it feels like watching someone’s personal life through their front porch window. Certain personal scenes can induce as much heart-pounding and face-covering intensity as any shot of Honnold several thousand feet in the air. But all of it is in service of answering the burning question most of us have when confronted with free solo climbing: Why the hell would anyone do that?
Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
In fact, most of Chin and Vasarhelyi’s approach to this film is to answer questions for the audience as they arise. They approach Honnold’s personal life and his mountain climbing with the same methodical, logical structure that can guide you through such complex topics in less than two hours. They bounce back and forth between his physical training and his inner life swiftly, leaving no stone unturned, so that the ending is satisfying on every possible level.
There’s so much to praise about Free Solo. Filmed predominantly in Yosemite, perhaps the most beautiful place in the world, with inventive angles and drone cameras, it’s a gorgeous film. Even the tensest shots of Honnold wedged between rocks on the face of the mountain are breathtaking. It handles tension as well as any horror film, alternating between the rising personal stakes in Honnold’s relationships and the life-and-death stakes of him on the mountain. You can’t help be invested not just in his well-being on the climb, but in his well-being once it’s all over.
Alex Honnold in Free Solo. Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary Films.
But what sets it apart from other documentaries of its kind is that this isn’t just Honnold’s story. The two years he spent preparing to climb El Cap was also two years that the film crew spent preparing to film him climbing El Cap. They worked as a team and committed to the project as a team. It shows on screen. In interviews with Honnold’s fellow climbers, with his girlfriend, with his mother, and even with the film crew on the day of the climb, it brings the broader picture of this journey and this sport into focus. Even though it’s called free soloing, he’s never really alone. On the day of the actual climb, cameramen were on ropes on the mountain, moving up and down to follow Honnold’s ascent. One raced up the mountain to be at the top when Honnold finished the climb and you see them high-five when Honnold reaches the top. Free Solo doesn’t just document the athletic feat of one man; it documents the incredible achievement of an entire group of dedicated people.
At one point in the film, Honnold says that it’s not enough for him to be happy and cozy in life. No one ever achieved anything by being happy and cozy, after all. And though the film is about the height of human achievement and the ultimate satisfaction of performing at your best, it’s also about the importance of having people in your life that you love. Maybe you can be happy and cozy and climb mountains. It’s certainly worth it to try.
Overall Grade: A-
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