2018, PG-13, 100 min. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 12, 2018
“A passage of scripture is written on every cliff,” orated Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King over 150 years ago in a sermon devoted to the glory of Yosemite National Park. Its most striking peak, El Capitan, inspires awe in those first witnessing its singular majesty. Vertically ascending skyward to a height of over 3,200 feet, the mountain is nowhere near the pinnacle of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but its unforgivably sheer facade of block granite has long dared humans to conquer it. In the kickass documentary Free Solo, 33-year-old professional mountain climber Alex Honnold takes a little less than four hours to scramble up the face of El Capitan, along a well-trod route christened “Free Rider.” Many before Honnold have made it to the top, but none of them – until now – has performed the ascent “free solo.” That is, alone and without the use of any ropes or other protective gear. The precision of a toehold on a crag, the micro-adjustment of fingers in a crevice: The perfect beauty of free soloing is that there’s no room for a mistake. None.
Lithely built with a boyish face (and impish grin to match), Honnold is plainly cut from the extreme sport cloth, a focused young man driven to risk his life to undertake something the rest of us think is crazy. (Interestingly enough, the movie never straight-out asks him: “Why?”) Living in a van for nine years and prone to eat his stovetop dinners straight from the skillet, he’s an unassuming yet fascinating guy, a little shy and socially awkward (he admits to having to learn how to hug people in his early 20s), but stubbornly firm in his unwillingness to abandon his dangerous ambitions, much to his most recent girlfriend’s understandable chagrin.
After a couple of sidelining injuries and a false start, Honnold begins to scale El Capitan like a human insect in the last 20 minutes of Free Solo. You’re sure to fidget and squirm the higher he goes, haunted by an earlier sequence memorializing mountaineers who have died during a free solo ascent, including one whose chilling free fall was filmed. Even the documentary crew, composed of seasoned climbers and longtime friends, can barely watch their buddy painstakingly move up the peak, anguished by the possibility (God forbid) they may be complicit participants in Honnold’s demise. You’ll feel the same way too, but it won’t stop you from bearing witness to this near-miracle of human physical achievement in a film that does that accomplishment proud.