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Alex Honnold Documentary ‘Free Solo’ Is as Extreme as the Man

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin chronicle climber’s dramatic rope-free summit of 3,000-foot El Capitan with heart-stopping detail

Alex Honnold free soloing the Scotty-Burke offwedth pitch of Freerider on Yosemite's El Capitan. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

Jimmy Chin/National Geographic

If mountain-climbing documentaries make you puke-dizzy, Free Solo is probably not a good idea. This National Geographic head-spinner from husband-and-wife co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin is extreme in the extreme. The focus is on Alex Honnold, a free climber who gives the finger to gravity every time he suits up. Honnold, 33, climbs alone, sees no need for such niceties as rope, harness and pitons and rejects the odds against surviving that come with the job. Free Solo even includes a morbid collage of dead climbers. No matter. Honnold has done more than 1,000 solitary ascents and he’s here to tell about it.

Free Solo details Honnold’s process as he preps to scale the 3,000-foot wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with just his fingers and feet. His mother, Dierdre Wolownick, worries. So does new girlfriend Sanni McCandless. So what drives this dude? A pre-climb MRI indicates a brain that doesn’t register what most brains would register under the circumstances: crippling fear. As Honnold sees it, “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”

None of that cozy stuff in Free Solo, though the film stalls a bit before liftoff. Once on the rock, however, you’ll be glued to the screen. Even cameraman Mikey Schaefer looks away during the hairiest parts of the climb. Just wait for “The Boulder Problem,” when Honnold basically karate kicks over a stony obstacle at 2,000 feet. The camera work in <em>Free Solo</em> will blow your mind — or whatever’s left of it. We’re told that drones were used to film a few of the trickier angles. It wouldn’t be surprising if eagles joined the crew. You may never figure out why Honnold does what he does. But pumped by Marco Beltrami’s score and your own adrenaline, you feel every spectacular moment. Can you hold your breath for an entire movie? Free Solo will put you to the test.

In This Article: Documentary

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