An exceptionally daring, dangerous & death-defying human feat captured on camera in ways that would make your palms sweat, Free Solo journeys into the community of free solo climbing to observe the philosophy that rock climbers live by while also offering an insight into the aspect of what fuels a select few of them to raise the stakes so high that it leaves no room for any error whatsoever. Crafted with ruthless honesty & told with gripping intensity, this documentary is a fascinating examination of passion, obsession & dedication that provides a first-hand account of a breath-stopping achievement of free solo ascent, and is a heartfelt ode to all those who live their lives on the edge, and are unwilling to let anyone or anything stop them from pursuing their seemingly-crazy goals.
Free Solo profiles Alex Honnold who is best known for his free solo ascents of big walls and follows his lifelong quest of performing the free solo climb of El Cap, which is 3200-feet of sheer granite mountain wall that no one has even dared tried before. With the solo climb of Half Dome & Mt. Watkins already in his bag, which along with El Capitan complete the triple crown of climbing in Yosemite, the film documents the meticulous preparation he undergoes before his ascent, and also dives into his personal life, detailing his formative years, the principles & codes he lives by, and also covers what his friends, family & girlfriend think of his daredevil attempts. But it all ultimately boils down to that moment when he sets off to become the first & only person to free solo climb the most impressive wall on Earth.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin, Free Solo opens with the camera hovering over a high vertical wall and what we see there is a man who’s climbing it without any gear or safety harnesses in sight. And in that moment we are suddenly hit with the realisation that this is not a feature film where this daredevil stunt can be easily simulated but a documentary where what you are watching is actually happening. It’s real, raw footage. That’s a real person up on that vertigo-inducing height doing things that no sane person would in their wildest dreams. One little mistake, one little slip, and he falls to his death. That’s how high the stakes are. Anything less than absolute perfection is not an option. And the moment you have a grip of that, you are totally on board with wherever this film wants to take you.
Acquainting the audience with who Alex Honnold is by taking us through brief montages of his previous free solo ascents and how he’s turned his passion into his means of living, the film quickly brings us to the next big milestone he plans to accomplish. The one that’s considered by many to be the holy grail of rock climbing, a wall that nobody has dared to free solo before. The film introduces El Capitan as a giant monster and just the sheer size of it makes its ascent seem like a near-impossible task. And once the gruelling challenges, dangers & limitations that Alex Honnold will need to overcome in order to make it to the top are taken into account, his solo climb attempt begins to feel like nothing more than a death wish. Each segment of the climb brings its own problems, plus the exhaustion from all that climbing is always a factor at play.
The meticulous preparations Alex undergoes before his leap of faith, rehearsing & visualising every move throughout the route, all of it is captured in splendid detail yet the sense of danger never goes away. Even though we know that he’s already done it and this documentary is just journeying us through how he did it, watching him ascent with no safety gear still becomes unbearable to watch at times. The camera is extremely responsible for creating this palpably tense mood whenever Alex is on any wall, and the wide shots that show the height he is at only amplify the tension to next levels. Also notable is the camera placements as the crew makes sure to keep a safe distance so as to not interfere with his climb or affect his concentration in any way or shape or form and they still manage to get the full picture of the whole experience in thorough detail.
The tension & worry evident on the crew’s faces while they are filming the climb mirrors that of our own except that for them it was happening in real time, and there was always this fear of ending up photographing Alex falling to his death which makes it a way more never-rattling experience for them. And then to top it off, there is Marco Beltrami’s tense, pulsating score that ratchets up the tension even more, heightening the suspense, and elevating the heart rate with effortless ease. The last 20 mins when Alex begins his ascent on El Cap are never-wracking as hell, and it’s a miracle that he makes it out alive after camera shows him stuck in places from where there seems to be no way out. It’s truly one of the greatest athletic feats, another impressive passage in the annals of human achievement, and the way it’s all narrated makes it a terrific piece of documentary filmmaking as well.
The film also gets into the mechanics of why people like Alex Honnold do what they do, what drives them to do it, if there’s anything to gain from it, and if it’s worth to risk everything for a tangible reward. The filmmakers take us through Honnold’s personal life block by block and build up an interesting picture of his persona. Although some may find his actions & attitude a bit on the cold side, there’s much to admire about a person who simply won’t allow anyone to get in between what he’s pursuing religiously & relentlessly. His girlfriend’s concerns are totally valid & understandable, and he is lucky in a way that she keeps her frustrations mostly to herself. It no doubt takes a toll on her sometimes but to prevent someone from doing what they are passionate about, to stop them from pursuing what makes them feel most alive would be way more criminal despite the good intentions. And to an extent, she understands that.
On an overall scale, Free Solo is one of the most intense, thrilling & entertaining documentaries you can get your hands on and is worthy of all the accolades it has garnered so far. The sync between the images unfolding on screen and the voiceovers accompanying those moments is seamless. And the effortless manner in which it grabs hold of our attention and doesn’t let go until the end makes it a must-see cinema. Alex considers free soloing to be as close as anyone can get to achieving perfection, for it demands 100% focus since your life literally depends on the tiny edges & small variations in the texture of the rock. But is it worth to risk your life on just two tiny points of contact that are keeping you from falling? Many will find it beyond reason and rightly so. After all, if you keep pushing the edge, eventually you will find the edge. But that’s exactly what fuels people like Alex Honnold who pursue perfection by pushing the boundaries of their craft and seek the next big challenge that would test their mettle. And that’s as inspiring & invigorating as it can get. As bracing as it is unforgettable, Free Solo is absolutely worth your time & money. Highly recommended.