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Free Solo

Free Solo

There were a number of standout films in 2018, with films like THE FAVOURITE, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, and BLACK PANTHER proving that originality, inventiveness, and engaging story-telling is still alive and well.There were also great documentaries that proved to be every bit as engaging as the best that Hollywood has to offer. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS, RBG, and WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR were amongst the standouts, but even these couldn’t compare to the unrelentingly thrilling FREE SOLO. In my opinion, it not only served as the best documentary of 2018, but was the best overall film of the year.

Produced by National Geographic films, and directed by Elizabeth Bhai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, FREE SOLO tells the story of fearless mountain climber Alex Honnold. Known for his inhuman ability to scale some of the most formidable rocks on the planet without the aid of harnesses or ropes, he puts his life on the line in order to chase the thrill and obliterate his own ludicrous goals.

As a character study, FREE SOLO delves into the psyche of a man who has yet to find anything that is more important than his dangerous hobby. He, of course, would argue that climbing is far more than a mere source of entertainment. It is an activity that has become synonymous with his very being. He freely admits that this could be due, in large part, to the lack of love he received as a child, and the inability of his parents to congratulate him for any of his accomplishments. One of the more stunning and heartbreaking revelations, in a film that is full of nothing but startling moments, is the fact that he had never grown up ever hearing anyone say “I love you” to him, and simply didn’t understand the concept of hugging. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he realized that hugging was a life skill actually worth learning. This profoundly sad and infuriating tidbit really serves as the crux of his motivation to climb, and is the obvious reason he has difficulty showing emotion and compassion with his girlfriend, Sanni. As the film progresses, and their bond grows stronger, it is awkward at times to witness his inability to consider her feelings above his own. He is aware that it is an emotion that he should grasp, and that Sanni longs to hear that she is more important than the climb, but despite his awareness, he certainly isn’t ready to change his ways.

Aside from the human drama, the footage presented in FREE SOLO is, without a doubt, some of the most stunning that I have ever seen. Think of the rapturous beauty of the best that PLANET EARTH has to offer, and now imagine a human being dangling thousands of feet in the air, barely gripping a divot that is the size of a thumb nail. Harrowing, heart-stopping and jaw-dropping, the thrill of watching Honnold and his fellow climbers work their craft is more intense than any fictional green-screen recreation could ever be. The specter of death is constantly on your mind, which only adds to the squirmy, yet delightful terror exuded in virtually every sequence.

The film centers around Honnold’s attempt to do a free solo run of El Capitan, a 3000-foot granite wall in Yosemite Park. Though he has climbed it countless times in the past with ropes, and does so throughout the duration of the film, he had never attempted to do it without any equipment. The journey itself is as fascinating as the task itself, and as much credit as Alex deserves for his unnerving and unbelievable talent, the ability of Chin and Bhai Vasarhelyi to film his work is miraculous. Chin and his crew were up on the mountainsides alongside Honnold, and while they had safety measures in place, they were still dangling thousands of feet in the air, trying to capture the imagery that would do justice to Alex’s craft. As if this wasn’t difficult enough, they also needed to be cognizant of their positioning and how their actions could affect Honnold’s climbs. It is a feat of breathtaking filmmaking that is every bit as impressive, perhaps even more so, than any other film I saw in 2018. 

FREE SOLO

Grade: A+

RATED: PG-13

RUN TIME: 1h 40min

GENRE: Documentary

STARRING: Dierdre Wolownick, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless

DIRECTORs: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

(Available on Amazon, iTunes, and Blu-Ray)

Jamie Wallace