Free Solo is an exemplary documentary about the act of ropeless cliff face climbing. The film introduces audiences to this particularly impressive/insane sport where the limits of concentration and endurance are brought to bear on an activity that most would immediately see as an act of lunacy.
On the other hand, the film is also the story of the limits of endurance between Alex Honnold and his partner Sanni McCandless, a woman he met during a book tour promoting his memoir. Living together in his van, they exemplify opposite views on many things, and the dynamic that they play out on-screen is nearly as dramatic as his climbs.
The core of the story is Honnold’s attempt to free solo climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan, one of the most iconic walls in the world and a feat never before accomplished. The film does a remarkable job of not only capturing the logistical and human challenges of such a climb, but also questioning whether the documentary itself is interfering with Honnold’s work. It presents a kind of Heisenbergian conundrum where the capture of the event may be altering the event itself, potentially with deadly consequences.
These aspects free Free Solo from being mere nature porn, as exotic as the photography proves to be. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are no strangers to this world. Both are accomplished climbers, and their previous film Meru had equally spectacular vistas. Yet with the unique character of Honnold, whose occasional lack of self-awareness borders on the comical, the filmmakers have found a perfect subject to present the ambivalent nature of such an endeavor that bridges between awe-inspiring and cautionary tale.
Either way, find an opportunity to see Free Solo on the biggest screen possible. (I got to see it at an IMAX venue!). Revel in the vistas and be amused about how Honnold’s journey, both on the mountain and with his girlfriend, proves to be both maddening and magnificent in equal measure.