Movie Reviews: Free Solo (2018)

We’ve been looking at quite a few biopics lately, stories that translate real life to Hollywood, but what about those films that cut out the middleman?  It’s been a long while since we’ve looked at a documentary as part of these main reviews (nearly five months), but it’s a welcome relief.  All three of those major mid-year docs were largely retrospective titles chronicling the lives and stories of their subjects, but today’s film takes a look at is subject as he attempts his feat.

Free soloing is a form of rock climbing which is performed alone without the aid of ropes or any form of backup.  It’s ridiculously dangerous and all the most famous in the field have a habit of winding up dead in the end from their pursuit.  At the center of this movie is Alex Honnold, perhaps the foremost free climber and his obsession with El Capitan in Yosemite National Park which has long been the center of the rock climbing world, yet one that had never been successfully climbed in the form of a free solo.

Honnold is a man who lives for rock climbing.  Despite having by his own admission a not insignificant amount of money, he’s lived out of a van for nine years and spends most of his life traveling.  He’s constantly pushing himself and living life on the edge and despite his protestations that he has a healthy sense of fear, it’s clear that he views death as something he’s not particularly concerned about.  He’s not eager to see it happen and his preparation for the climb is meticulous, full of practice, and lacking in stupid risks (relatively speaking of course), but he doesn’t quite understand or concern himself with people’s preoccupation with it.

If you’re wondering how a documentary can follow someone in their pursuit of something so intrinsically private, you’ll be happy to know this becomes a major part of the film.  The cameramen are all professional climbers and despite their best (and interesting) efforts to set up and plan the cameras around his planned ascent as well as document his preparation, it becomes clear that their impact on Honnold is significant and not as a physical obstruction.  Free Solo almost becomes a reflection on Direct Cinema as the very nature of being on camera and making the documentary affects his ability to climb and his mood.  He’s someone who would clearly love to just sneak off and do this the way he does all his other climbs, alone and without giving anyone any warning until after its done, with the time alone being part of the appeal.

Also interfering with his ability to focus is a relationship, perhaps his first serious one, with his girlfriend.  Besides pressuring him to stop (something he makes clear he has no intention of doing as women will always come second to rock climbing), she does appear to be yet another distraction to him that he can’t really afford when he’s hanging on by minuscule finger and toeholds.

The real star of the film though is the beautiful cinematography, namely the shots of the climbing.  Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who is a major character in the film) last delivered the great climbing doc Meru and return to give so many impressive shots.  Not just ones that capture the majesty or the shear audacity of what he was attempting, but the ones that capture all the smaller actions of Honnold and the sound design that went into it as well.  Granted, they threatened to undo all their hard work in the climactic section by killing the tension with constant cuts away from his climb so that the camera can capture the far more interesting sight of some dude staring at a camera and making remarks.  In addition, the frequent narration during that section takes away from that “solo” feel that as a viewer I started to crave as much as Honnold, wanting them to just focus on the climbing instead of repeating unnecessary information in an attempt to fill the void.

It’s still packs quite the visual spectacle and fills in the gaps between the climbing mostly effectively.  It drags a bit in some of those latter sections as we didn’t need quite so many scenes of the couple together, but it’s not a deal breaker.  Unrelatedly to the quality of the film, that Tim McGraw song in the credits is just absolutely terrible and feels so cheesy.