FREE SOLO, documentary, not rated, 100 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
Rising over 3,200 feet above the valley below, El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in California attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. But few would even think twice about climbing the granite slab’s north face without ropes. Someone willing to do that is clearly out of his mind.
Enter thirty-three-year-old Alex Honnold. He engages in “free-soloing,” or rock climbing without ropes and supports. He claims to have done more than 1,000 rope-less, harness-free climbs on scary-looking crags. According to the documentary Free Solo, fewer than 1 percent of climbers are that daring. The documentary, produced by National Geographic Documentary Films and co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Meru), leaves the cameras running as Honnold uses all his strength, focus, and dexterity to become the first climber to free-solo El Capitan. Other than a successful ascent, the only thing he can expect is sudden death. That doesn’t stop him.
Chin and his fellow cinematographers capture the natural wonders of the Yosemite landscape for this documentary, as well as the more intimate conversations Honnold has with his climbing buddies, girlfriend, and other family members. There are pan shots of the lower valley, with El Cap looming ominously in the background. Honnold climbs alongside breathtaking, rainbow-encrusted waterfalls. In one scene, he sits down in a patch of stout emerald-green grass, notebook in hand, and works out his calculations in preparation for the daring ascent. Tommy Caldwell, a professional climber and idol of Honnold’s, may think Honnold a little off his rocker, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help his fellow climber prepare. “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level athletic event that, if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die,” Caldwell says. Some mutual climber friends of theirs have already met their fates.
Perhaps Honnold should have his head examined. An MRI scan proves that he doesn’t have much activity in his amygdala, the brain’s fear center. That could explain why, in the face of endeavors that should tell him to exercise caution, he follows the road far less traveled. “You face your fear because the path demands it,” Honnold says. He stares up toward the summit of the towering structure with the audacity to believe that he can make it, unencumbered, unaffected by fear, and unmoved by the opinions of others.
“I’ve always been conflicted about shooting a film about free-soloing just because it’s so dangerous,” Chin says. The camera crew expresses reservations about filming at times, wondering if they will have an impact on the climber’s focus. But in the end, they did film Honnold’s ascent, and the result will leave viewers speechless and on the edge of their seats — perhaps even clinging to them for dear life. A must-see for hardcore rock-climbing enthusiasts, Nat Geo-philes, and adventure seekers, the underlying theme of self-determination makes Free Solo’s appeal far more universal. — Thomas M. Hill
White-knuckle ascent: Alex Honnold