“Free Solo was the scariest film I have seen all year…”
Last night on a whim I decided to see Free Solo, a movie about an actual fucking psychopath named Alex Honnold as he prepares to climb the face of El Capitan without any safety gear or ropes; a process called ‘soloing’. I’m at a loss for words.
Free Solo to me is the bread and butter of documentary filmmaking. It showcases an obscure topic with a niche group of people who participate in it, as well as has a central character who is fascinating in their own right. Free Solo hits all of the marks in terms of it being a great documentary, and this isn’t even considering the movie itself
Right off the bat the topic of soloing is fascinating, and it is one that is niche enough to be a new topic for most people, but relatable enough for a general audience to be interested in the material. Not ‘relatable’ in the sense that everyone wants to do this, but relatable in the sense that everyone is familiar with rock climbing as a hobby.
Free Solo manages to focus in on this subset of a subset, really zoom in on an aspect of the world that would otherwise go unnoticed to most and temporarily bask it in a spotlight. The way that the film introduces this topic in a way that isn’t too difficult to grasp but also not demeaning to the audience is great, and it really kept the film interesting even though I could give a shit about rock climbing.
But past the interesting nature of the hobby was the interesting character at the heart of this story: Alex Honnold. Honnold is what I would call a psychopath. I admire and respect him, but even Free Solo was sure to highlight how nuts he is. The movie never shied away from portraying Alex in a cold or emotionless manner because it would have been dumb not to show those moments.
Free Solo constantly mentions a ‘shield’ that you have to have when soloing. This shield is essentially turning your brain off. You can’t worry about what will happen if you fall, you can’t worry about what will happen if you die, you can’t worry about if a certain move will lead to your death; you just have to focus on climbing. You have to become robotic, almost as though climbing is a second nature to you and your brain has entered autopilot. Free Solo does an amazing job of painting Alex as one of the few men who could accomplish the task of soloing El Capitan because he demonstrates these attributes both when he is and isn’t climbing.
Free Solo also does an amazing job with its direction and really showing the audience what exactly soloing is. Some of the shots that were in Free Solo were nothing short of breathtaking; literally, they made me short of breath. Free Solo was the scariest film I have seen all year mainly due to the direction and cinematography.
Arguably the best aspect of Free Solo as a documentary is it doesn’t play stupid to the fact that it is a documentary. It constantly references the fact that this is a film production, and because of that it feels as though we as an audience are a part of something rather than spectators. Every single question we have is answered almost as if magic were used. “Oh, you think Alex is crazy? Alright, we’ll stick him in an MRI”, “Oh, you’re worried about how are presence will impact Alex’s performance? Well let’s sit down and discuss it as well as options of how we are going to shoot this thing”. It was almost like call and response at a concert with how much we as an audience were being thought of during the creation of Free Solo.
So if Free Solo was truly this good, why am I not singing its praises from the rooftops? First of all: I’m still kind of scared of heights after what I saw in the film so I’m fine with the ground, and second of all: in my opinion Free Solo fumbled the ball right at the end if its Hail Mary play. The entire movie was building up to Alex Honnold soloing El Capitan, but the ending of the movie took all of the triumph and suspense out of that moment.
It was weird to have a movie spend almost two hours repeating “this is very dangerous” and “this is going to be one of the hardest things in the world” only for the actual event to be played off like a stroll through a park on a Sunday afternoon. Sure some of this is due to Alex’s experience with climbing making a lot of it look easy, but most of this comes from the over-produced nature of this segment of the film.
Free Solo never had a problem with letting a moment exist without much added in to help it along. This created a very genuine experience throughout the film. This is why when Alex starts his climb, and I am practically assaulted with hamfisted music and editing that made mincemeat out of this phenomenal achievement, I was stunned. Never did I think that the training would be both more interesting and more intense than the actual event; but Free Solo accomplished just that.
Overall Free Solo is the crème de la crème of documentaries with its niche topic and interesting character. It manages to shine a light on an otherwise unnoticed part of the world and does so in a way that is informative and also treats the audience with respect. Unfortunately all of this is thrown out of the window during the “main event” of the movie which ruins a lot of good favour it had garnered.
Free Solo a B