I feel a heavy note of caution is in order when it comes to recommending Free Solo — it’s a very good documentary about a very bad idea. There’s no denying that filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have pulled off a truly remarkable cinematic feat, utilizing drone footage and a camera crew suspended halfway down a 3,000-foot cliff face to capture rock climber Alex Honnold’s historic ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall without a rope. The climactic sequence showing the actual climb is nothing short of nerve-wracking — even though you know Honnold makes it, Free Solo’s inherent suspense would be impossible to duplicate in a narrative film. But for the love of all that’s holy, do not try this at home.
That statement does not constitute a spoiler — Honnold’s success was reported widely when it happened last year, and this isn’t a Faces of Death reboot, after all — but what’s more shocking than the outcome is the amount of tension Free Solo builds leading up to its final act. Knowing how it ends does nothing to diminish the sense of mortal danger that Chin and his team capture every time Hannold shows up without a harness on. The film is structured in such a way that the history of risk associated with free soloing is well-established through interviews and archival footage of other climbers — most no longer living — but it’s Honnold’s climb that we came to see, and Chin’s execution is nothing short of exceptional. The technical achievement alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s more to Free Solo than just some fancy camera work.
Unfortunately, the development of psychological context is where the film is at its most uneven, vacillating between solipsistic navel-gazing and armchair analysis while occasionally pausing to remind the audience that what this man has in mind is absolutely nuts. It’s fascinating to hear a neuroscientist talk about Hannold’s underactive amygdala or to listen to Chin speculate on what impact the film crew’s presence might have on the climb’s success and the moral implications of possibly catching Hannold’s death on film, but do we really get anything out of seeing a group of high school kids ask a professional rock climber how much money he makes? Or watching him shop for a refrigerator? A significant proportion of Free Solo’s first hour feels like padding, material included to stretch the film to feature length while saving the main attraction for the last 15 minutes.
Digressions aside, Free Solo supplies ample fodder for climbing aficionados while providing enough background to bring the uninitiated into the fold. It’s difficult to imagine anyone coming away from the film with anything less than slack-jawed admiration for the herculean accomplishment that Honnold’s climb represents. Yes, as a National Geographic production, Free Solo will end up on TV sooner than later, but the sheer scale of the sweeping vistas on display here really do benefit from the big-screen experience. Those looking for a deeper understanding of what makes someone like Honnold tick will gain some cursory insight, even if he remains largely enigmatic. But the adrenaline junkies out there looking for a front-row seat to one of the most impressive athletic challenges ever surmounted will be well-rewarded. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.