Film Review: Free Solo

This breathtaking doc about free solo phenom Alex Honnold will inspire both amateur and armchair climbers.
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Alex Honnold is part of the fewer than one percent of rock climbers who does free solo—meaning without ropes, and just using one’s bare hands. He is first seen, from a dizzying high-angle of course, hanging onto the side of a cliff. It’s an awesome, inspiring shot, and it sets the tone for Free Solo, an awesome and inspiring doc from the team behind Meru.

Free Solo chronicles Honnold’s dream to scale “El Cap,” as the “unfathomably huge” 3,200 feet of sheer granite El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is known. It’s a scary, dangerous project with no margin of error. “Your whole life depends on one foothold,” says one of the film’s interviewees. As such, Honnold discusses his reasons for free soloing, which has a higher risk than most climbing. He does not admit to being an adrenaline junkie (albeit one with ripped abs who lives out of his van), but he is. According to his mother, Alex is most himself when climbing.

Honnold comes across as very likeable and down-to-earth when not on the side of a cliff, and most inspiring when he is soloing. He is endearing talking to students at the high school he attended, or chatting with other climbers who understand the challenges of the extreme sport. Moreover, some background on Alex’s upbringing, his relationship with his late father, and the results of an MRI that detail some of his brain functions (he has difficulty communicating emotion) help humanize the climber whose nickname is “No Big Deal.”

Free Solo also considers how Alex’s new romantic relationship with Sanni McCandless—who is not a climber—will affect his career. When Sanni and Alex go out climbing one day, he suffers a compression fracture in an accident, but still goes bouldering in a boot cast. Likewise, there is considerable—arguably too much—discussion of how the presence of co-director Jimmy Chin and a team of camera operators will affect Honnold’s climb if and when he scales El Cap. Chin is especially respectful to not get in Honnold’s way and let the climber have the experience he wants. The filmmaker is also concerned with how to react if tragedy strikes.

Some of the best scenes in the doc feature Honnold doing a practice climb using ropes to get the lay of the granite. He debates whether to climb the Teflon Corner or the Boulder Problem about halfway up the cliff face, and shows the jumping, grabbing tiny edges and kicking moves he needs to do to make his way to safety. It is fascinating to see Honnold puzzle out how to achieve his goal as well as do some free solo climbs that helps build his confidence for when—spoiler alert—he proceeds to conquer El Cap.

Free Solo does drag a little bit with scenes of Sanni and Alex buying a house, shopping for a refrigerator, and trying to express their feelings as he plans to embark on a death-defying climb. There are also too many scenes of Alex rushing his recovery from a second injury. These moments, along with some homages to climbers who have died, may draw out the dramatic tension, but they feel like padding. Viewers may grow restless waiting for the money shot of Alex soloing up El Cap.

But when this climatic moment comes, it is worth the wait for both Alex and audiences. Honnold is poetry in motion as he scales the granite, as impressive aerial shots illustrate. There is even some comic relief as cinematographer Mikey Schaefer can’t watch from the ground below. As the music swells on the soundtrack and Honnold makes his way past the Boulder Problem, it is impossible not to feel a surge of emotion.

Free Solo doesn’t end on the top of El Cap, nor does it show how Honnold gets down, either. That’s a minor flaw in a film that will have viewers holding their breath and biting their nails, as they and Alex hang on tight during the spectacular climax.