Ever since Jon Krakauer chronicled the disastrous 1996 season on Everest in Into Thin Air, there’s been no shortage of books and movies about climbing. There’s something about death being one errant footstep away that’s catnip to armchair adventurers. For the uninitiated, the rush of scaling seemingly unscalable peaks is hard to fathom. But even for professionals, there’s a subculture of thrill-seekers that even they don’t understand: the free soloists who climb without ropes, harnesses, or safety gear of any kind. One mistake, and you’re dead.
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s exhilarating new documentary, Free Solo, focuses on one of these daredevils — a lanky, socially awkward 33-year-old named Alex Honnold, who in 2017 set out to scale the 3,200-foot, sheer granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan with nothing more than his callused fingertips and a film crew (some of whom were so nervous they turned their backs to their cameras). It was insane, and it had never been done before… which made Honnold want it even more. Meanwhile, his (mostly) supportive girlfriend grapples with her lover’s blasé attitude toward falling to his death back at sea level.
If you’re afraid of heights, Free Solo isn’t for you (I had to watch some of its more vertigo-inducing moments through my fingers). But what makes it more than just ghoulish voyeurism is how it paints a surprisingly rich character study of a young man and the obsession that drives him. In the end, the answer may be only slightly deeper than “because it’s there”, but for 100 nerve-racking minutes, Free Solo brings us one man’s suicidal quest with sympathy, grace, and a ton of adrenaline. A-