Starring: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Tommy Caldwell
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Running Time: 100 mins
Free Solo is an American documentary about Alex Honnold, a professional climber who attempts ‘free solo’ climbs – rock climbing without a rope – and the story of his ambition to scale the indomitable cliff face of El Capitán at Yosemite, without a rope.
This is an absolutely spectacular film. Reminiscent of the likes of the award-winning Man On Wire and the astonishing Grizzly Man, Free Solo is a human interest documentary with such power and cinematic spectacle throughout, furthered by a dynamic and layered portrayal of an incredible physical feat that makes for an utterly enthralling watch throughout.
There’s a whole lot to talk about with Free Solo, both in its subject matter as well as its technical achievements, which are some of the greatest I’ve ever seen in documentary filmmaking, but we’ll quickly start with the basics, the story of Alex Honnold and his journey to taking on the most arduous free climb ever attempted.
In short, it’s a stunning story that’s presented absolutely brilliantly. Lending due focus to the technicality and complexities of climbing in a way that’s both accessible and absolutely fascinating for novices, as well as giving an emotionally moving account of Honnold’s inner psyche as he prepares for the climb of his life, the film really engrosses you in the events and people involved in a way that’s really rare to experience, giving you the same stunningly breathless and exhilarating experience as the main subject himself.
Having said that, the only negative with the story’s presentation would be the fact that there are a few moments over the course of the film’s first two acts where it does, at least structurally speaking, feel like a more run-of-the-mill National Geographic documentary, perhaps not taking the narrative leaps that other top-quality documentaries have in the past.
In any regard, however, there’s no doubt that Free Solo is a stunning documentary, and it gets every single one of the fundamental components of a great documentary absolutely perfect. However, not content with just showing a thrilling and enthralling story, Free Solo goes further, and alongside the stunning nature of the subject at its centre, its greatest achievement is how it goes behind the camera, and lets you into everything that went into preparing the climb, and how the film itself was made.
It’s a bold and unorthodox move for a film to effectively document its own process while it’s still happening, but directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin do an exceptional job at bringing it in when appropriate, meaning it actually adds to the central story more than it ever detracts from it.
On the one hand, there’s the element that focuses on the technical aspect of how the camera crew were able to film such stunning footage while hanging off the edge of a 3000ft cliff, and as well as simply marvelling at the film’s gorgeous and vertigo-inducing cinematography throughout, you’re also given an enthralling insight into how all of the production was planned around the climb itself, and just how much of a difficult task it was to pull off as well.
On the other hand, though, you have an unexpected but stunning emotional impact that comes from the film’s focus behind the camera. Particularly towards the final act, the film moves away from working as a typical narrative documentary – i.e. telling the story about the man who climbed El Capitán – and bringing in a wider context that adds a whole lot more gravitas to what you’re seeing on screen.
In that, there’s an astonishing theme that focuses on the role of the camera crew in potentially affecting Honnold’s climb in a negative way, whether it be a distraction on the day itself, or a build up of pressure that would not be there if he was entirely alone. However, as much as the film gives due focus to Honnold’s inner thoughts and emotions, it also brings everything that’s happening on screen into an incredibly real, emotional context, and focuses on what the production crew would do if something were to go wrong, and what their potential role in causing such an outcome would be.
It’s difficult to explain clearly, given that it holds such emotional weight throughout, but the short of it is that by going behind the camera and widening the story’s scope beyond something a lot more basic, it allows you to relate and sympathise with everything that’s happening on screen a hundred times better, and that’s something I can’t say I’ve ever seen pulled off quite so spectacularly as this film.
Overall, I was blown away by Free Solo. Although you may not expect it at first, it’s a film with such stunning depth and intrigue from beginning to end, furthered by dynamic and emotional filmmaking that turns a riveting human interest story into something incredibly powerful, while its exceptional cinematography and gorgeous visuals top it all off in spectacular fashion, which is why I’m giving it an 8.3.