A climactic, spine-tingling documentary as sleek as the mountains it ascends with surgical precision and acrophobic suspense, Free Solo magnificently illustrates the indomitability of human spirit (& most jaw-dropping athletic feat in history). 9.6/10.
Plot Synopsis: Alex Honnold completes the first free solo climb of famed El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
“Everyone I know who free-solo’s is dead.” Alex Honnold & co. first took the rock-climbing and media worlds by storm several years ago, when news of their unconventional, *incalculably*-dangerous methodological approach to ascending cliff faces was the recipient of attention from outlets ranging from TIME to the New York Times: climbing-without-ropes. Pictures meagerly expressed how absolutely unbelievable such a daredevil-ic pursuit was to the naked eyes of readers, but begged for a more in-depth three-dimensional look at how bonkers and heart-thumping it would be. In steps promising up-and-coming talent filmmaker Jimmy Chin, a rock-climber himself who has known and been comrades with Honnold for years, and they decide to take National Geographic up on that heavy bet not only filming the surgically-precise artistry of free-soloing, but doing so on a dream Honnold (as well as most free-soloers on the planet) have: FS’ing El Capitan in Yosemite. The result is magnificent – A climactic, spine-tingling documentary as sleek as the mountains it ascends with acrophobic suspense/surgical precision unparalleled as well as innovative camerawork and a fascinating character study, Free Solo magnificently illustrates the determination and power of the human spirit as a sports doc capturing perhaps most incomprehensible athletic triumph in history.
Alex Honnold. From the first shot, Honnold is a perfect fit for the doc. A charismatic, instantly-likeable and even normal-appearing persona with easily enough athletic credentials to back-up the impossible claims he was about to make in FS’ing El Cap and just as quirky/weird a personality & physiology to intrigue, it is hard to imagine a better canvas subject to explore the artform of free-soloing. We are taken in-depth in his psyche and backstory with meticulous characterization through vignettes and stories from his family and friends in classically-documentary feel, but the film also feels live-action or more free-flowing than most docs do as well for a *far*-more gripping product. His warrior spirit, philosophical outlooks on life and achievement, and surgical focus is downright enthralling and respectable in drive to achieve what no human has ever dreamt of before while also doing so in humbly rootable fashion. The human touch Honnold’s story and life glimpses adds anchors all the unbelievable rock-climbing achievements in something tangible, with fascinating exploration of the physiological tolls such a wild pursuit has on his body and mind with things like MRI’s revealing scarce-to-no amygdalic response to classically fear-invoking triggers and being able to do pull-ups from finger-holds, as well as phenomenal emotional resonance learning how harrowing/heart-breaking it must be to people like his mother and girlfriend having to live each day knowing he faces sure death for even one millimeter of imperfection in pursuit of his dream they wouldn’t dare get in the way of.
Visual and auditory majesty. Paralleling all this character development and documentary-depth in character study is a sensory background equally as elegant (and innovative). The cinematography is jaw-dropping with absolutely INSANE shots of the granite cliff faces of Yosemite, red-hued mountains of Morocco, white pine-lined snowcaps of Everset, etc. for a true invocation of the artistic philosophy of the sublime: feeling in absolute awe of the power and vastness of nature/natural forces. The camerawork is game-changing using unprecedented drone-work and shots from other climbers in crew to accurately and perfectly capture the surgically-precise, unparalleled grandeur and perfection in climbing with things like close-ups of the minute granular variations in cliff face granite able to support his chalk-dusted hands and thinly-gripped shoes from all angles (especially overheads and POV’s for immense feel of what it was actually-like) for a visually-spectacular product that will leave you in goosebumps with your jaw firmly on the floor. The scoring is also prodigious in everything from fluttering piano melodies echoing the birds making nest at such high altitudes humans should not be at, heart-thumping suspenseful strings and orchestral ensembles, and triumphant booms as he finally reaches the pinnacle and summit of El Cap. It is a masterclass in Hitchcockian suspense wherein the whole audience and any viewer will be on the absolute edge of their seats cheering and gasping the whole film.
Finally, the climb itself. There are few words that can adequately describe how absolutely *unbelievable* this Olympic-level triumph of sport is. It artistically illustrates the resiliency and power of the human spirit, determination, and innovation in such a manifested way as few documentary subjects before it. This simply should not be a feat humans should or would be able to accomplish, yet one man was able to overcome the laws of nature and physics itself to ascend Mount Olympus and join the gods of human achievement for a feat that hits you like a ton of bricks when you watch it unfurl before your very eyes. It is without question the most impressive, staggering, incomprehensible sports doc/accomplishment in history in my view and I am honored to even be able to watch something that took my breath away so completely as this. The only conceivable flaw I can muster is that maybe they could’ve dramatacized the actual moment when he realizes he’s done the impossible and reached the summit more – but I also respect its realism in remaining true to its doc-genre.
Overall, Free Solo is a masterstroke of documentary filmmaking by National Geographic and the crew involved – as well as one of the best films of 2018. A climactic, spine-tingling documentary as sleek as the mountains it ascends with acrophobic suspense/surgical precision unparalleled as well as innovative camerawork and a fascinating character study, Free Solo magnificently illustrates the determination and power of the human spirit as a sports doc capturing perhaps most incomprehensible athletic achievement in history.
Official CLC Score: 9.6/10