“Free Solo” Review: A human-nature documentary as grounded as it is gripping

Image via Thomas Hawk on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Spoiler alert:

He doesn’t die.

Rare is the film review that needs to start with a spoiler alert for something which *doesn’t* happen. But so it is for Free Solo, the extraordinary new documentary profiling lifelong climber Alex Honnold as he embarks on an unprecedented feat: scaling Yosemite’s daunting, thousand-metre-high El Capitan Wall without ropes, harnesses, or any other lifeline. Far from being obsessed with success, this is a film about the fear of failure, a fear which manifests differently among each member of the cast and crew.

This is a good thing, because both the documentary’s setting and its protagonist, Honnold, initially threaten to take us down a well-trodden West Coast path of hipster-bro micro-trippy tropes. OK, so the valley in question here is made of granite, not silicon, but the early insights we get into Honnold — through both copious talk of “perfection” and “performance” via his voice-over, and from choice facts about his life (he lives in a van, but he makes a six-figure salary!) — briefly made me fear that he was the kind of person who was taking some time out from Mountain View just to view mountains, dude.

Yet we quickly warm to Honnold, just as soon as it becomes clear that the “perfection” he professes to strive to is itself a kind of performance. Glimpses of Honnold’s upbringing, which included a devoted yet distant father and an anxious and solitary education, are fairly run-of-the-mill Freudian — but it is the arrival on the scene of Sanni, whom Honnold is, at first, only “trending in the direction” of dating, which really brings the stakes both physical and emotional to life. Sanni, who is “small, cute, and livens up the place”, really seems to effect a change in Honnold’s outlook as he prepares for his fateful ascent. Suddenly, Honnold’s Plan B — falling fatally but gracefully into the climbing community’s pantheon of gifted but strikingly fatalistic athletes — is no longer an option. Honnold’s hope had been to simply remove the ropes and embrace his fateful free climb, come what may, but the ropes are replaced instead by an altogether different set of strings-attached.

While the patient but assertive Sanni provides much of the emotional grounding, that the film never lapses into a pure love story owes to the sheer physicality of Honnold’s challenge, and in particular the enormous obstacles involved in capturing it on film. Notions of “cast” and “crew” meld almost into one as the team of cameramen, all of them climbers themselves, are forced to balance integrity to their craft with fidelity to their subject. In this sense the film is a tale of two walls: first and foremost the one Honnold must scale, but also the fourth wall, which is repeatedly broken as crew members reflect on the painful possibility that they may film Honnold — as director-producer-climber Jimmy Chin puts it, with beautiful euphemism — “falling through the frame”. Worse still is the possibility that an out-of-place camera, a distracting drone, or just the psychology of being watched may even cause Honnold to slip up. The crew’s frankness serves as a refreshing reflection on the ethics of documentary filmmaking, but also slyly makes the viewing audience feel just as culpable as the crew does for Honnold’s success or failure — as if an inopportune gasp from the rafters could send him plummeting.

Thus the peak of intensity is reached as, after some false starts, Honnold embarks in earnest on a truly gripping physical and filmic sequence. By this point, the audience is largely up to speed with the dimensions and dangers of the task at hand, but several tricks — such as new camera angles, from sweeping drone shots to fingertip close-ups — have been smartly held up the sleeve until this moment, only now putting the feat in its true perspective. It’s at this moment that Honnold’s own Spock-like perspective clearly serves him well, with a focus so absolute that at times, his climb feels almost like a nature documentary, complete with dramatic scoring and wide tracking shots, absent only Attenborough. Yet Hannold’s dispassion is not shared by his evidently fearful colleagues, whose reaction shots and radio comms frequently intersperse the action. Crucially though, where at first Hannold’s aloofness could feel alienating, by the final act we are all firmly on (and, thanks to some terrific camerawork, frequently by) his side.

Free Solo might best be described, then, as a “human-nature documentary” — on one side a depiction of the cruel splendour of the natural world and what it takes to master it, and on the other, an altogether more human story of aspiration and sacrifice. Hannold, who spends much of the film on the former side of this chasm, ultimately attempts a leap to the latter. Spoiler alert: he, and the film, lands it.