‘Free Solo’ is The Feel-Good, Pants-Shittingly Terrifying Documentary of The Year

See It Without Safety Equipment At Your Own Risk

On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold became the first person to successfully “free solo”–that is, to climb without the use of any equipment, including, and, this is important, safety lines–Yosemite’s massive 3,000 foot tall El Capitan rock wall. This is a spoiler, but a necessary one. He doesn’t die.

If you didn’t know this going into seeing the documentary Free Solo, watching Alex Honnold holding on to the vertical face of a cliff by only his fingertips, while his friends watch from the valley floor 2,500 feet below, would be nearly unbearable. He does this while sanding on a flake of rock the width of a quarter, which doesn’t ease the tension. At one point in the film, Honnold wistfully mentions that if he falls, his body would “just…explode”. To repeat: this doesn’t happen.

FREE SOLO ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Running time: 97 min.


Knowing that Honnold survives doesn’t make the movie any less compelling, or flat-out terrifying. The obvious question viewers will have is: “What the hell is WRONG with this guy?” The film attempts to figure that out.

Climbing El Capitan without safety equipment would not be logical

Honnold’s voiceovers describe an introverted childhood and parents who were at best emotionally distant and at worse emotionally abusive. This gives some indication. His often flat demeanor prompts one of the film crew to describe him as “Spock”. Given the fact that he’s able to memorize dozens, if not hundreds, of individual climbing moves as well as tiny features in the rock face that will serve as places for him to grab and step on to, it’s clear that he operates on a level that’s beyond most humans. A sequence in which he gets a CAT scan to see if his brain actually processes fear like the rest of ours is a bit contrived. But yeah, per Science, it takes quite a bit to scare Alex.

Honnold emerges as a cross between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. His new girlfriend Sanni McCandless, a climber herself, is kept at arm’s length through much of the film. Honnold cannot have anything or anyone breaking his focus. But despite this, Honnold remains a likable fellow, quirky, insightful and even funny. You don’t want him to die.

And holy hell, that potential death is writ large during the actual free soloing sequence. I’m a former climber; I don’t know if that made watching his ascent less harrowing or more. One scene in particular illustrates something that every climber knows: that even if you do everything right, there’s still Nature to worry about. In this case, bees.

At one point in the film, Honnold admits that knowing his friends might be right next to him if he falls is rattling his concentration, which prompts the team to use drones and remote cameras to film much of the action. It works: the audience is right there with Honnold, at 500, 1000, 2000, 2500 feet. Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her husband Jimmy Chin partnered on the 2015 climbing documentary/butt-clench-a-thon Meru. Chin’s background as a climber serves the camerawork well, zooming in on those impossibly tiny footholds, and swinging out to show just how goddamn BIG El Cap is. Honnold’s final push to the top is both a huge relief and the film’s emotional apotheosis. There were a few audible sniffles in the theater. The final shot of Honnold standing atop El Capitan is one for the ages. Acrophobes should perhaps wait until the movie comes out on Blu-ray.

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Jason Avant

Jason Avant is a writer and editor based in Carlsbad, California. He’s written for and edited a bunch of websites that no longer exist, and occasionally contributes to one that does: Roads and Kingdoms.

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