To watch Free Solo is to willingly thrust yourself into a vertiginous, panic-inducing, heart-palpitating setting for nearly two hours.
That right there alone would usually be the highest praise I have to offer a documentary of this nature. But the most impressive part of Free Solo isn’t the astonishing athletic feat that’s on display, nor is it the sweeping, enveloping cinematography that demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
No, what makes this transcend just another action documentary is the fact that it embraces layers and the human story at its center. Free Solo introduces us to Alex Honnold, who set out to be the first to climb Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot El Captain mountain — sans ropes or any protective gear. For much of the documentary, we watch him train tirelessly, climbing the mountain with ropes and a harness as he learns its layout intimately, memorizing every exact move he’s going to make during his eventual free solo climb. It’s like an acrophobic dance routine, and it’s fascinating to watch.
But just as absorbing are the moments where we get to know him as a person. He’s a man with a drive and passion that’s impossible not to admire, but also someone who seems somewhat detached from the world around him. He lives out of his van by choice, and speaks about the very real possibility he’ll die during his climb with a calmness that boggles the mind. At one point, it’s stated very clearly: “Everybody who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now.” To Alex, it’s simply one of the risks he has to take on his quest for greatness. High risk, high reward.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Free Solo gives us a clear window into a sort of mania that for most of us is nothing short of mystifying. But in a strange way, we come out of the documentary sharing his peculiar outlook. We all want to have the courage to chase our dreams, and anything worth fighting for has risks. But those themes come into unusually sharp focus here because the consequences — which we’re constantly terrified we’ll see happen on the screen before us at any moment – are truly a matter of life and death. One wrong move and he’s a goner.
For every moment that we get to listen to Alex earnestly describe his obsessive need to free solo, we get glimpses of his camera crew, who flip between being all game to seriously wondering if they’re accomplices in this young man’s potential demise. And then there’s his new girlfriend. The more we watch her, the more we see she’s —excuse the pun— between a rock and a hard place. She’s supportive of Alex’s goal, while at the same time dealing with the mental turmoil of the fact that the man she loves may not make it out of this alive. It’s a dichotomy that’s painfully real for her, and yet one that seems at times to be strangely lost on him.
It’s a feeling the viewer will come to know well. When we actively crave the entertainment of stunts like the ones we see in Man on Wire or Free Solo, are we throwing fuel to a potentially dangerous fire? Are we aiding and abetting sheer stupidity? At the same time, we’re watching something that’s nothing short of extraordinary — a true testament to what man can achieve. Isn’t that worth all the potential pitfalls?
I don’t know what the right answer is. All I know is that watching Free Solo made me feel an intoxicating adrenaline rush, like I was right up there on that climb with Alex and the camera crew myself. No matter how many times I wanted to cover my eyes, I couldn’t bring myself to look away for even a second. In some small way, Free Solo makes daredevils of us all.
Free Solo opens at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami this Thursday. For showtimes, click here.