A dizzying documentary about a rock climber's pursuit of record-breaking heights.
On Hulu | 2018 | PG-13 | 1h 40m
Genre: Climbing documentary
Why I watched: The nominees for "Best Documentary" at the 2019 Oscars made for an impressive lineup, including another of my recent favorites, Minding the Gap. I missed Free Solo in theaters, though, and hadn't watched before it won the category during the awards. I was immediately hooked when they previewed the documentary when reading off the category's nominees and, as soon as I read that it would be streaming this spring, Free Solo moved to the top of my queue.
You might also like: Perhaps the best part of Free Solo is the adrenaline rush, although free solo climbing is as anxiety-inducing as it is breathtaking. If you're looking for a milder thrill, you might give The Amazing Race a watch. A reality TV staple, the show features teams of two that race around the globe to perform both mental and physical challenges. It will have you in awe over nature's beauty, feed your urge to travel, and still have you sitting on the edge of your seat as competitors race to the finish line.
El Capitan, located in Yosemite National Park, is a monolith of nearly 3,000 feet along its tallest face. It is a popular ascent for rock climbers and a climb that does not come without risks. Many of the most elite climbers have died trying to scale the rock formation, even with adequate preparation and safety gear. Alex Honnold completed his climb of El Capitan in exactly three hours and fifty six minutes "free solo": without any ropes or equipment.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Free Solo profiles Alex Honnold during his preparation for and climb of El Capitan. The documentary achieves many incredible feats, but the most impressive by far is the cinematography. (This 360-degree video from National Geographic provides a good idea of the film's camerawork.) Take, for example, the opening sequence. The camera points down the face of El Capitan, a wall of sheer granite, from a vertigo-inducing angle. As shot slowly rotates to show the rock straight on, you see a small, bright red dot moving up its wall. Compared to the magnitude of El Capitan, Honnold is virtually invisible minus the color of his shirt. The sheer scale of the objects in the frame is dizzying and this sensation is only amplified once interviews with climbers begin to unpack the risks of free solo-ing.
But Free Solo also examines how a risky climbing career shapes Honnold's lifestyle and mentality, which makes the film accessible to climbers and non-climbers alike. Viewers watch his relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless unfold at odds with his self-described social and emotional void: "My dating life, I think, has been an overall negative. I travel all the time, and I live in a car." Their relationship is rocky at times as Honnold reconciles his dangerous career with learning how to let someone into his life. And, in a film that presents Honnold as a near-fearless, record-setting climber, the challenges in his social and romantic life make for a raw story about how we engage in everyday exchanges with those closest to us.
In short: Free Solo's balance between the magnitude of Honnold's climb and his navigation of everyday life is impressive, a cliffhanger that mirrors free solo-ing El Capitan. Grab some popcorn and hang tight for a thrilling adventure.