The documentary has been on an upswing of late, and has consistently been creating some of cinema’s most prevalently humanistic offerings. Whether that be through the various miniseries brought to streaming services or deep-dive features of both celebrated icons or personal stories needing closure, documentary filmmaking is experiencing a golden age, and you can add ‘Free Solo’ to that conversation. As a film, it manages to effortlessly feel both intimate and harrowing. As one climber’s ambitious desires come with potentially massive consequences, it is an endearing film about what we endure to do what we love and to embrace our identities to all degrees.
‘Free Solo’ centres on Alex Honnold, as a documentary crew archives his attempt to climb El Capitan’s 3000-foot vertical rock face without the safety of any harnesses. The challenge is inherent; Alex either fulfils a spectacular athletic feat and his lifelong dream or unequivocal death. The film follows Alex throughout his preparations, as we see the strain and uncertainty a challenge like this places on his partner, friends and family. But for Alex, this climb means more than what the worst of it could offer; it is a greater reward in what has given him a sense of purpose. As his constant POV illuminates his mentality through the climb, ‘Free Solo’ offers an intimately human story coupled with an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.
The film is very specific in its intentions almost from the get-go, as we are promised to see this climber undertake this death-defying act while we get to know a little bit about the personality that pushes himself to that extreme. And on that front, ‘Free Solo’ acquits itself admirably. Everything the film promises to explore upon is done so with gusto, and sharp filmmaking. Additionally, despite the intensity of the climb, the film never aims to feel overtly over-the-top knowing that they wish to keep their subject front-and-centre. It knows what stature the film should be through that light, which while decreasing its ambitions somewhat slightly, makes good in what it promises to deliver.
The first aspect to draw attention to is just how well it is shot. While Alex is undergoing his preparation and eventual climb, the cinematography captures the progression of his journey remarkably. With camera operators right there with him, the audience never feels a lack of immersion, and we are constantly reminded of the death-defying nature of these acts. It is a thrilling experience, done more so with the lack of artifice to evoke just how real his endeavour really is. Every reposition, every jump, even birds coming into view produces an audible shock. So from that perspective, ‘Free Solo’ audaciously makes you feel like part of that journey. For a climb that is the first of its time, the filmmaking team make a very sharp depiction in letting the audience know why it is the first. We are with Alex every step of the way, and we feel every moment with tenacity.
For a climb that is the first of its time, the filmmaking team make a very sharp depiction in letting the audience know why it is the first. We are with Alex every step of the way, and we feel every moment with tenacity.
The film equally patterns itself as a character study of Alex Honnold. He isn’t portrayed solely as an ambitious daredevil, but the film takes its time in revealing his relationships, personality and his faults. While Honnold’s continued pursuit pushes the film, it's the quiet moments where we get to see what exactly drives him and what holds to his relationships, and his sense of self is where the film greatly presents something raw and intimately human. We view the film entirely through his perspective, and it isn’t always a perspective we can get onside with, but the form follows function marvellously. At once, ‘Free Solo’ is able to make you white knuckled but remind you that you are viewing something real. The filmmakers don’t designate Honnold an out-and-out hero figure, and the reward in that is gratifying.
‘Free Solo’ is a lean, thrilling and powerful documentary, as it perfectly illustrates what it sets out to achieve. A film that covers an impossible feat that is anchored by keeping us grounded through the eyes of the climber and his world beyond the mountains. The prowess of the filmmaking is impressive beyond measure, capturing the nuances amidst the insanity, with a strong deliverance on narrative that makes the whole process a satisfying piece of viewing. It shows us what we will do to achieve our dreams and how that can be perceived as both a strength and or a fault. It's a slice-of-life documentary that perfectly encapsulates this uncharted field, strengthened by keeping it distinctly human.