Midway through Free Solo, rock climber Alex Honnold goes in for a brain scan. Honnold is training to scale the granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, without the benefit of ropes or harnesses. A curious doctor pours over the test results, wondering if Honnold’s singular determination and fearlessness can be pinpointed by science. Sure enough, the amygdala in Honnold’s brain process fear far more coolly than those in normal people do. This explains why he is able to execute jaw-dropping feats with an air of cheerfully casual courage, while everyone around him quakes in sheer terror. Indeed, this award-winning documentary ain’t for the faint of heart: Most viewers will spend stretches of Free Solo with their sweaty palms clamped to the armrests.
The filmmakers pepper this adrenaline-drenched narrative with tidbits of Honnold’s life. He was an aloof and gifted child who found a solitary passion in rock-climbing. As an adult, it still seems like Honnold lets few people within arm’s reach, and those who get there regard his daredevil achievements with a kind of bewildered admiration. Sanni, his sweet-natured girlfriend, clearly wavers between trying to lasso in his dangerous ambitions and simply allowing them to reach their logical conclusion–even if that could mean death, eternal glory, or both. Even the filmmakers (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) must navigate an ethical conundrum: How do they document Honnold’s ascent in a way that captures its breathtaking suspense, without causing distractions that could kill him?
The answer comes in a combination of cutting edge technology and careful planning that keeps the cameras at a decent distance while not sacrificing suspense. Huge lenses allow filming from both the ground and the summit. Chin keeps a camera near Honnold’s path without getting in his way. It’s clear the Honnold has done some meticulous planning to work his way up, and the filmmakers paid close attention to every detail.
Honnold makes several practice runs with safety gear, and these only underline the peril of his final climb. The filmmakers provide graphics that illustrate his progress up the rock face and ramp up the tension every step of the way. Marco Beltrami’s pounding score perfectly complements the suspense and gives the action a cinematic feel. The whole thing is so friggin’ tense, even the cameramen eventually have to turn away from it.
In the end, Free Solo turns out to be more gripping than any fiction film could hope to be. But, it also functions as a character study, documenting the strange satisfaction Honnold gains from being alone on a rock. Maybe it’s not just the rush, but also the sheer escape he seeks. It doesn’t take a series of scans to see that Honnold seems quietly contented at 3,000 feet up, when most of us would be petrified down to our bones. At one point, he muses that some kid may note his achievements and strive for something bigger and better. “Or maybe it will be me.” If that’s true, you can bet millions will watch with frustrated fascination. Until they have to avert their eyes in terror, that is.
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