Free Solo creates two conflicting feelings that make for one hell of an unmissable movie; awe and terror. Free Solo should come with a rating reserved for the most frightening and disturbing films. It’s an unadulterated fly on the wall view of one of the most staggering and unbelievable feats of agility, focus and precision ever attempted.
What is Free Solo? Free means, no assistance from any climbing assistance, specifically ropes and tools. Solo, means what you’d expect; all by your lonesome (not to be confused with a loveable space scoundrel). This incredible documentary is a chronicle of climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb Yosemite National Park’s monolithic 3000 feet (900m) rock formation, El Capitan, in June 2017.
As an avid podcast consumer, particularly of the incredible Joe Rogan experience, I was familiar with Honnold before Free Solo. I had heard (and then sought out the footage on youtube - which I would recommend) snippets of descriptions of the kind of feats of physicality and calculating precision that had defined his incredible climbing career. He’s a fascinating individual. Somewhat detached, but extremely personable and sweet; it’s clear from the first moment you see his focus and thoughtfulness that he’s operating on a different plane. I had also listened to Honnold return appearance on Rogan’s show promoting Free Solo before seeing the film; which some would say is a kind of spoiler for its outcome (it’s not).
Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi capture something strangely reassuring with their subject. They objectively appraise that there are people like Honnold out there in the world who have a genetic gift that makes them built for something in a way that others aren’t. For leaps in human ingenuity and achievement, there are often outliers that tread the new ground. No amount of training would make you or I reading this as naturally built for this task as Honnold. Free Solo does an incredible job of capturing the evolving mindset of Honnold during the preparation. Without spoiling the machinations of the journey, it’s most definitely not a straight line.
With all of those factors, I’m not sure that I can adequately express the way my body reacted to every agonising moment of this incredible pursuit. Directors Chin and Vasarhelyi and their incredible team of cinematographers (including Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer) had an impossible task in front of them. They contended with both a physical, psychological and emotional pressure that most projects rarely operate. They first had to tactically stage themselves along the journey demonstrating a fearlessness with their bodies at incredible heights and pressure for exact safely measures. The psychological stress is to capture this ascent, in essence polluting the purity of Honnold’s task. Therefore, they are in a constant state of concern that their very presence is potentially a danger to the life of their subject. As you would expect, emotional pressure mounts as connections firm and the attempt looms.
All of that considered the staging of the cameras, the blistering clarity across the broad canvas and the depth of field is sickeningly striking. I cannot remember a time that I’ve ever sweated so much watching a film. I squirmed in my seat trying to have as little of my body touching my seat as possible. Uncontrollable exhaling comes next and sometimes partially hiding your eyes from the screen with a flared hand.
Free Solo is a must-see documentary. If you’re not scared of heights, you should be. One thing’s for sure; you will believe a man can climb.
Rating: ★★★ & 1/2 /★★★★
Directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin
Cinematography by: Jimmy Chin, Matt Clegg, Clair Popkin, Mikey Schaefer
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.