If you’re afraid of heights, “Free Solo” is not the film for you. It’s a nerve-racking, vertigo-inducing portrait of a man who scales cliffs with none of the usual safety gear — no ropes, no harness, just a bag of chalk and his bare hands — and it’s made all the more intimidating by the use of relatively new camera technology — including drones, remote-operated rigs, and super-long zoom lenses — that effectively strap audiences right in there with Alex Honnold as he claws his way up a 3,000-foot wall with nothing to protect his fall.
Now, for those who love the thrill of high-adrenaline adventure docs, National Geographic’s “Free Solo” will be a hard experience to top. And yet, as a follow-up to “Meru” — a mountain-climbing doc that was, quite literally, awesome to behold — co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin outdo themselves with this daredevil project, which demanded a crew that was willing to dangle right alongside their subject on several of his most daunting free-solo challenges (the camera team takes precautions, at least).
Honnold’s latest obsession is by far the most insane: He wants to be the first to scale Yosemite National Park’s nearly kilometer-high El Capitan unprotected (an often-lethal rock formation, El Cap claimed two more lives just this past June). In sheer entertainment terms, that would put this front-row-seat documentary somewhere in the company of such on-camera stunts as Harry Houdini wriggling out of a straitjacket in midair, or that crazy death match between man and great white shark that stunt producer Bill Sargent pitched back in the day. There’s a very real chance that Chin, who considers Honnold a friend, would be the one to record his death.
“Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level achievement where if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die,” offers Tommy Caldwell, an experienced climber who’s done El Cap many times … but never without a rope. Caldwell also cautions, “I think everyone who has made free soloing a big part of their career is dead by now” — a comment that kicks off a montage of the late legends of the sport.
Of course, if Honnold had plummeted during his climb, we’d know about it by now, which makes the reality-TV-style documentary slightly less exciting than it purports to be (it intercuts character-building background interviews with Honnold’s mother and girlfriend fretting about how dangerous the climb could be). Still, it’s saying something that even long-lens cameraman Mikey Schaefer finds himself constantly turning away during the feat’s most perilous moments — like “The Boulder Problem,” an exposed spot in which a climber must karate kick across an open space more than 2,000 feet up in order to secure his next foothold.
Certainly, it’s fascinating getting to know the 30-ish Honnold, which involves trying to psychoanalyze someone who, according to the doctors performing a pre-climb MRI, experiences no activation of the brain’s amygdala when confronted with situations that trigger fear in others. The filmmakers delve into his backstory, sketching a not-especially-dysfunctional childhood and treating his budding relationship with his incredibly supportive/understandably concerned girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, as a source of potential drama. Naturally, she doesn’t want to see Honnold fall (who does?), and yet, she’s partly responsible for two pre-climb injuries that create serious setbacks.
Despite certain socially awkward tics (more endearing than off-putting), Honnold makes for a compelling protagonist. Driven and seemingly robotic in his way of analyzing a situation (“If I perish, you’ll find someone else. Not a big deal”), he’s a good-looking guy whose oversize brown eyes give him the look of an adult child — appealing to the responsible adult in all of us that wishes someone might talk him out of this reckless climb.
But, of course, he’s not to be deterred, and the film would probably have been better if the directors had shorn 20 to 30 minutes of suspense-oriented stalling in favor of more salient subplots, like how one prepares for such a climb (are bolts allowed, and what does he do for food and water?), or else the ruminative musings of someone like Werner Herzog (whose volcano doc “Into the Inferno” speculated about what draws men to such deadly challenges).
Apart from a slow stretch around the hour mark, the filmmakers keep things lively (with a big assist from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score, the nail-biting opposite of Tim McGraw’s soaring end-credits single, “Gravity”), featuring test runs at Zion National Park’s Moonlight Buttress and the nearly sheer limestone cliffs in Taghia, Morocco. Still, all this spectacle leaves one thing very much unsaid: “Don’t try this at home” — basic advice for those who might be drawn to the sport, since a film this exciting is bound to inspire imitators (almost all of whom will wind up pancaked across granite trying to top this feat).