Free Solo is a singular work worthy of any cinephile’s time simply because of the wonder-inducing cinematography.
Most world-class athletes eventually perform their physical prowess in front of live masses of people and cameras. For some, such as LeBron James, television coverage and sold-out arenas is a banal and rudimentary aspect of his sporting life. For others, like Usain Bolt, global attention is much more fleeting, a once-every-four-years adrenaline spike. But there are a small handful of truly superhuman athletes whose accomplishments happen away from the popular consciousness, mostly known to only a self-selected few who read the pages of specialist magazines. Alex Honnold, the transcendent rock climber and free soloist, is perhaps at the top of the list of practically invisible athletic mega-achievers.
Honnold is famous among climbers, in the same way that a casting director is famous among movie producers or a museum curator is to art lovers. In other words, everyone who is even semi-serious about climbing knows Honnold and his achievements, while those who are not semi-serious about the sport do not even care. Except when he does something absolutely insane; then, he breaks through and is featured in the national news. Free Solo works to remedy the lack of awareness on the part of the non-climbing public. And make no mistake: Honnold is a freak of nature on par with the likes of James, Bolt and Michael Phelps in terms of his athletic superiority to mere mortals, and he deserves to be celebrated for his achievements.
Free Solo follows Honnold through nearly two years, as he prepares to become the first person to ever free solo El Capitan. For those unfamiliar with climbing terms, a “free solo” is a climb without ropes or support; for those unfamiliar with Yosemite National Park, El Capitan is the biggest, most challenging and most famous granite wall in the world. To even contemplate a free solo of El Capitan is, frankly, deranged. Yet, the film shows Honnold going through the preparations with all due earnestness, including selecting the optimal route, working on his fitness and, with ropes, practicing the hardest sections of the wall repeatedly. The feat, should he actually try it, will be much more than a test of daring, though it is undeniable that hanging off a rock slab several thousand feet from the ground without a rope to save him from a small slip is daring. A free solo of El Cap would require incredible endurance, immense skill and honed athletic prowess. Even among practiced rock climbers, even with ropes and professional guidance, climbing El Capitan is exceedingly difficult and a lifetime achievement. There are no real hand- or footholds, no places to rest and thousands of feet of granite to traverse. Honnold’s proposed free solo is, as one commentator in the film puts it, a gold medal-caliber athletic feat.
Free Solo is not just about a lunatic dangling from the side of a cliff. It shows Honnold’s everyday life and features intense conversations among the film crew about the ethics of trying to film someone doing something that may result in his death. In the early scenes, Honnold discusses living in a van, the rigors of going on book tour and the pitfalls of trying to date, given his day job. Honnold does, in spite of himself, get into a serious romantic relationship and Free Solo uses the obvious tension between his ambition to free solo fucking El Cap with his ever-deepening commitment to his girlfriend as its central narrative thread. He cannot and will not give up his climbing career, including the part that involves not using ropes, but he does have to consider that he has brought someone into his daily life and that that someone has feelings. In short, slipping on his climb and dying now seems of greater consequence with a girlfriend who is in love with him. Honnold makes his thoughts on the matter succinct and clear. When discussing the death of his friend Ueli Steck, one of the world’s greatest alpinists, Honnold contemplates the wife Steck widowed and says, “What did she expect?” His girlfriend is shocked at this, but she did meet Honnold at a book-signing where he was trying to sell his book called Alone on the Wall, which features him climbing alone and without a rope. Audiences are left to wonder: what did Honnold’s girlfriend expect?
As a film, Free Solo builds and builds until the climactic moment, which is so tense that Twitter is full of critics reportedly gasping or biting their nails. And yet, every viewer already knows what happened: Honnold’s successful free solo of El Cap was a really big deal and actually made him, momentarily, visible as a world-class athlete. This speaks to the film as a remarkable work of cinema: that the narrative is edge-of-the-seat exciting even though the ending is well known. In that way, it is like the film version of the TV show “Better Call Saul,” which also makes the lives of characters whose future is known suspense-filled.
Beyond the narrative tension, Free Solo is a singular work worthy of any cinephile’s time simply because of the wonder-inducing cinematography. The entire film crew needed to be near-professional-caliber rock climbers in order to get their cameras in the right places. The shots of Yosemite Valley are jaw-dropping throughout, and the coverage of Honnold’s incredible free solo of El Cap is captured as well as it could be, given that the climb ranged over nearly 3,000 vertical feet. This is a documentary about human achievement and expanding our collective physical and emotional limits, certainly, but beyond that it is a standalone accomplishment in stretching the material and physical boundaries of filmmaking itself.