Premise: Follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed arguably the greatest feat in rock climbing history.
I went into Free Solo wondering what could possibly possess a person to climb anything without ropes or harnesses. It is a lifestyle that I am so far away from, I simply can’t fathom it. And right off the bat, the documentary addresses this question in the form of an interview that Free Solo‘s subject, Alex Honnold, was in on television. His rationale is that anyone can die at any time, what difference does it make if you’re thousands of feet in the air with only a fingernail’s worth of space keeping you from plummeting?
That philosophy didn’t answer the question I was mentally posing throughout the movie. Nor does it try to. Instead, that interview offers us our introduction to Alex, who is an endlessly fascinating and charming character. His entire life is devoted to climbing. He lives comfortably in a van, he eats his food right out of the skillet with a spatula, and he just wants to accomplish this monumental goal he has set for himself.
As a documentary subject, Alex has this open book, wholly genuine attitude that makes it very easy to root for him. It feels at times like he’s maybe not the most socially adjusted person, but therein lies his charm and charisma. Every time we see him in the doc, Alex has this candor and straightforward manner of speaking that feels so genuine and devoid of ego. It’s strangely comforting to see someone enjoying their bliss with an extreme skill without coming across as posturing or self-congratulatory.
A big part of the documentary focuses on Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni and what effect it may have on him climbing El Capitan. Aside from the jaw-dropping camera work, the inner workings of Sanni and Alex’s relationship were the most compelling parts of the film. Alex and Sanni’s relationship is unique in that Alex is a very closed off individual. Yet, they both work hard at the relationship and we the viewers get an inside look at what that entails. At times you’ll wonder why Sanni stays with him and then you’ll see tender moments between them that highlight how bizarrely well they fit together.
Of course, the camerawork in Free Solo is arguably the most impressive thing about the film. The filmmakers did a wonderful job communicating just how massive a feat this climb would be. They also utilized some very interesting visual techniques to track Alex’s progress on his climbs. The placement of the cameras, camera operators, and the way the footage is edited together gives us very intense views of the vast space separating Alex from the Earth as he climbs.
As someone who is extremely acrophobic, seeing this documentary in IMAX had my blood pressure elevated at several points.