Free Solo (Review): The Man Behind The Mountaineer
Free Solo showcases the thrilling ascent of the notorious El Capitan, whilst offering an insightful exploration of the man brave enough to accept the challenge.
El Capitan, a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park that stands at almost 3,000 feet, is a popular destination for many avid rock climbers around the world, but none had yet dared to face the challenge without the aid of ropes or harnesses – until mountaineer Alex Honnold decided to take the plunge in June 2017. Free Solo is the thrilling documentation of his journey, chronicling every moment from the idea’s conception to its execution, and everything that came in between. The film takes an intimately personal approach to Honnold’s life story, examining the events that brought him to this moment and the effect that they’ve had on both his physical and mental health – before displaying the monumental achievement in breathtaking cinematic form.
Free Solo is, first and foremost, an extremely well-made documentary. It has a perfectly balanced combination of information, entertainment and critical engagement that make for one of the most interesting viewing experiences out there – you’re never quite sure where the film is going to take you next, and the unbelievable story just adds another element of captivating storytelling to keep you on your toes throughout. It features some of the most visually stunning cinematography you’ll ever see in a biographical documentary, using the backdrop of El Capitan’s breathtaking scenery to enhance the story that it’s trying to tell. The narrative unfolds in an entirely engrossing way, with the film using plenty of anecdotes and interview segments to build our connection to those at the center of the story.
Alex Honnold is a perfect subject for this kind of documentary, displaying a fascinating attitude towards life that the film dissects in a truly absorbing way. Perhaps the most striking feature of Honnold’s unrelenting lifestyle is that he faces his own mortality every single day, growing further and further from the security of his own life with every step he takes up the mountain. Free Solo raises a lot of important questions about the effect that this can have on one’s mind, and the ways by which his ongoing dance with death impacts his friends and family. It offers plenty of strikingly honest conversation with both Honnold and his partner Sanni about his uncompromising lifestyle and the strain that it has on them both as a couple and individually. These poignant discussions of life and death expertly compliment the film’s central journey – a stirring adventure packed full of twists and turns to please any audience.
The final act of Free Solo boasts some of the most intense and nerve-racking filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi know exactly how to get your palms sweating and your pulse racing as they defy all expectations and present an intensely visceral account of Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan. There’s sweeping wide shots, intimate close-ups and dynamic camera movements that perfectly recapture the feeling of being on that mountain with Honnold, interspersed with interview footage of his friends and family watching from the ground. It might only be fifteen or twenty minutes of footage, but it feels like you’re up there for the whole five hours of the climb, your life in the palm of El Cap’s metaphorical hands. It’s sensory filmmaking in its boldest, most refined form, and it’s no surprise that the film has been endlessly praised for its daring directorial choices ever since its release.
Free Solo is a special kind of documentary; it’s a film that uses its incredibly entertaining and well constructed narrative merely as a backdrop for its thoughtful exploration of one man’s complex psyche, as it attempts to offer answers to some of life’s most elusive questions. It isn’t always definitive in its answers, but you’ll soon find yourself lost in its intricate examinations and pensive commentary anyway. One of a kind in several ways, Free Solo is an extremely creative and refined adventure from start to finish that’s bound to please all kinds of audiences.
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