'Free Solo' film review: Watch a man take-on a half-mile high rock without ropes
The breathtaking and dizzying National Geographic documentary "Free Solo" (opening in theaters Sept. 28) is all the more intense because it connects so intimately with its subject - an unflappable and focused climber intent on taking on a seemingly impossible feat.
In short: Alex Honnold dares to accomplish what no other rock climber has accomplished: scale Yosemite's 3,000-foot high El Capitan Wall without the security of either ropes or safety gear.
This film has three simple tasks: expose the audience to solo climbing (itself a subset of rock climbing), laying out many ways a climber can easily fall and introduce the world to Alex Honnold. This documentary isn't merely a white knuckle romp up a mountain - this is the personal journey of a dedicated climber taking on a slab of rock.
This film exists somewhere on the edge of focused determination and a low-simmering gut-wrenching, zen-like intensity. Honnold's laid-back tenor belies a relentless, tireless drive. "Solo" captures Honnold as a man - his anxieties and his underlying self-motivation. Developing him as a dimensional human elevates Honnold beyond just being an athlete: "Free Solo" establishes him as a friend, partner and son to his loved ones -- but it's all in the context of Honnold as a renowned climber. He is many things to many people, but the film firmly establishes that he is first and foremost a dedicated solo rock climber. While some may rock climb as a hobby, this film makes clear that climbing is his purpose.
Investing so much time in fleshing out Honnold as a man firmly connects his journey with the audience -- and it firmly raises the already insanely intense stakes. Free solo rock climbing is inherently an intriguing subject, but focusing on Honnold makes this a man versus nature drama - where even one minor misstep could be instantly fatal.
Because the subject is relatively arcane, "Free Solo" must clearly explain free solo rock climbing. Climbing without a rope is pretty easy to explain, but the filmmakers take the time to reveal the incredible detail and research required to conquer the El Capitan. Honnold's meticulous note-taking and the ridiculous risks Honnold must take to ascend sheer, nearly featureless and vertical granite. The documentary benefits from elegant visuals that impress the difficulty and treacherous nature of scaling El Capitan Wall even while wearing safety gear, much less wearing just a t-shirt, shorts, sturdy shoes and a chalk bag.
All this work - explaining the man and the mountain - absolutely pays off with a taut and incredible third act. At times it's impossible to tell what, if anything, his feet are gripping to on the nearly flat granite surface. Brilliant cinematography takes center stage, providing incredible footage of a man attempting the impossible. Just watching Honnold work, improvise and calculate his way up the sheer rock is stomach-turning and instantly makes the palms sweaty. The camerawork is so up close that it's hard to imagine how filmmaker Jimmy Chin got those shots. A behind-the-scenes featurette just about how Chin filmed the climbing portions would itself be engrossing.
Final verdict: "Free Solo" works because it remains rooted in the Honnold - which only makes the third act that much more harrowing and difficult to watch. Go see this film on the biggest screen possible.
"Free Solo" opens in theaters Sept. 28. This documentary is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and has a running time of 100 minutes.