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‘Free Solo’ offers slow-burning thrills

Documentary chronicles climber’s ambition to tackle towering height of El Capitan in Yosemite

“Free Solo,” a National Geographic documentary, is a film that examines the fear and motivation behind incredible human achievement, against a backdrop of stunning natural landscapes. 

The nerve-wracking film chronicles the journey of Alex Honnold, a famous U.S. rock climber, as he prepares to “free solo” El Capitan, a mountain face in Yosemite National Park. Free soloing is rock climbing without any ropes or equipment at heights where falling almost inevitably results in death. Prior to Honnold’s attempt, no one had ever free soloed El Capitan, which towers around 3,000 feet at its highest peak. 

The film is breathtaking, not only because of the natural beauty depicted, but because of the emotion and tension in such a treacherous feat. As the movie develops, Honnold’s personality becomes a central component of the film, as everyone around him seeks to understand his motivation for undertaking an endeavor that could easily lead to his death. Honnold seems fearless and obsessed with achievement, unsatisfied until he at least tries to free solo El Capitan. Everyone advises him against it, including his girlfriend, Sanni. Other free soloists caution that it is too dangerous, and fear for his life.    

Delving into Honnold’s childhood, examining his relationships and even studying his brain, the film is mostly a portrait of an eccentric climber. At one point, when asked about his motivations, Honnold speaks about a warrior spirit that continually inspires him.“This is your path, and you will pursue it with excellence,” he said.      

The majority of the movie focuses on Honnold’s preparation for the climb. Honnold details exactly how he plans to get through the most difficult parts, down to the tiny shifts in the cliff that he would cling to. In the thrilling scenes of Honnold’s climb, the abstract details of the danger and hardship illustrated throughout his preparation suddenly become edge-of-your-seat anticipation and apprehension.

Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed the movie and recruited a team of seasoned climbers to help them film. In the movie, the crew openly discusses with Honnold the details of shooting the film and recounts how they struggled with the ethics of filming their friend. Chin explains that he doesn’t want the camera’s presence to put pressure on Honnold, which could be potentially disastrous. One of the crew members, Mikey Schaefer, discusses his fear that as he was filming, he would capture Honnold “falling through the frame to his death.” In fact, during Honnold’s free solo climb, Schaefer looked away from the camera as he was filming the riskiest parts.

“Free Solo” creates a disjointed picture. On the one hand, Honnold’s attempt is moving and awe-inspiring, but the film leaves the viewer wondering: Is it worth the risk?



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