×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold has a dream: to climb the 3,000-foot El Capitan wall without a rope. The doc is gripping — but what about its daredevil hero?

Director:
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
With:
Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell Sanni McCandless

1 hour 40 minutes

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).

Film Review: 'Free Solo'

Reviewed at Dolby Screening Room, Burbank, Aug. 22, 2018. (In Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A National Geographic Documentary Films release and presentation of a Little Monster Films, Itinerant Media, Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation production. Producers: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, Shannon Dill. Executive producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Tim Pastore, Matt Renner.

Crew: Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin. Camera (color, HD): Chin, Clair Popkin, Mikey Schaefer. Editor: Bob Eisenhardt. Music: Marco Beltrami.

With: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, Cheyne Lempe, Mikey Schaefer, Dierdre Wolownick, Peter Croft.

More Film

  • Black Panther Movie

    Global Box Office Flat in 2018, Netflix and Subscription Services Rise in Popularity

    The domestic box office rebounded in 2018 in a recovery fueled by blockbusters such as “Black Panther” and “Incredibles 2.” Ticket sales in the U.S. climbed 7% to top out at a record $11.9 billion, according to a new report by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). That helped off-set declines in overseas markets [...]

  • Variety Massive Entertainment Marketing Summit

    Showbiz Marketers Look to Netflix's Data Expertise as They Build Their Own Campaigns

    Netflix’s ability to profit from its secret sauce of granular consumer data has made it the envy of Hollywood. Now, with Disney, Warner Media and others prepping their own ambitious services to challenge the streaming insurgents, entertainment marketers will face more competitive pressures than ever. But at the same time, new marketing tools are emerging [...]

  • Midnight Traveler review

    Film Review: 'Midnight Traveler'

    Refugees rarely get to tell their own stories, which means their stories get told for them — often inaccurately and with undue hostility. Lack of resources is one issue, but a lack of stability is another: Asylum-seekers are in a frightening state of limbo, fleeing the imminent dangers of their native countries only to suffer [...]

  • WGA Authorizing Managers, Lawyers to Make

    WGA Authorizing Managers, Lawyers to Make Deals if Agents are Fired

    The Writers Guild of America has authorized managers and lawyers to negotiate deals for writers in place of agents — if the guild tells members to fire their agents on April 7. The guild’s negotiating committee notified members of the plans in a message Wednesday. The WGA and the Association of Talent Agents having made [...]

  • Gone With the Wind Screening

    Film News Roundup: 'Gone With the Wind' Sets Event Cinema Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Gone with the Wind” sets a new record, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” is acquired, and Tracy Oliver signs with Topic Studios. EVENT CINEMA RECORD The 80th anniversary release of “Gone with the Wind” has grossed $2.23 million in six nationwide screenings on four dates — a record as the [...]

  • Made in Abyss - Journey’s Dawn

    Film Review: ‘Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn’

    It’s a Herculean effort to take a multi-volume manga like author Akihito Tsukushi’s “Made in Abyss,” adapt it into a popular anime television series, and then compress the show into a coherent feature (technically, two movies), but the folks at Sentai Filmworks have done just that. Part one, “Made in Abyss: Journey’s Dawn,” will screen [...]

  • HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market

    HAF: 'Assassination,' 'Apprenticeship' Named Project Market Winners

    Eighteen prizes were presented on Wednesday afternoon at the closing ceremony of the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum. The project market sits alongside FilMart as part of the Entertainment Expo in Hong Kong. “Wong Tai Sin Assassination” to be directed by Wong Hoi and produced by Derek Kwok Tsz-kin, was named the winner of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content