The last 30 minutes of Free Solo is as perfect a movie-watching experience as you’ll get. That isn’t to dismiss the first hour of the movie though because without the background and the detail of the feat and scale of what is potentially being accomplished, aspects of that final act would be lost. It would still be breath-taking nevertheless though.
It helps that the subject of Free Solo, Alex Honnold, is fascinating in himself. He is a man obsessed with climbing and doing so in the most dangerous way, without ropes or safety harnesses – “free solo.” Watching this obsession would be enough to keep the documentary interesting, as we get a fantastic insight into his thought processes, what scares him, what shockingly doesn’t and the wider effect his obsession has on those around him.
This is another clever aspect of Free Solo. The relationships Alex has developed, with fellow climbers, his family and most interestingly of all, his girlfriend, all offer a stark contrast and highlight how different Alex really is. They all view him with a mix of awe, wonder, shock and concern, as he endeavours to take on a task everyone seems to think is going to be his literal death.
That task is completing a free solo climb of the El Capitan cliff face. The movie does a great job of highlighting how crazy this plan truly is. Through great graphic representations of the many different obstacles on the way, through talking heads with experts who have climbed the face but wouldn’t dare do it free solo through to stark comparisons with the multitude of climbers who have lost their lives on climbs no where near as dangerous as this one. The film presents the challenges quite clearly, with even the camera crew reluctant, at times, to complete their own movie. That obsession remains though and it makes Alex and his task even more interesting.
Away from the fear and emotion of the climb is the preparation. This is fascinating in itself too, as we watch Alex plan his route, practice aspects and clearly spell-out and highlight for the audience what the challenges will be. One aspect, the Boulder Problem, almost becomes a running sub-plot in the movie and gets its own intense moment in the final act of the film.
To spell out that final act will spoil a key aspect of the movie but nevertheless, it involves climbing something that shouldn’t be done “free solo.” The camerawork and the aspects captured are incredible and you feel like you are there on that cliff with him as he makes every minute move and small adjustment. It is truly edge of your seat, heart in your mouth watching. At times you will want to look away but literally cannot as you don’t want to miss a moment. It is the perfect example of why documentaries and the capturing of the amazingly true feats people are capable of, make for some of the best movies.
Overall, Free Solo is a fascinating watch for many reasons. It documents an interesting figure in Mark Honnold, one who outlines the true extent of obsession. It offers a glimpse into preparing for what many feel is the insurmountable and then it showcases, with intense and amazing camerawork, the attempt on that feat itself. It will truly take your breathe away.
Rating – 5!
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