Free Solo (2018) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

2018 has been an excellent year for documentaries. Free Solo (2018) may be the most compelling documentary I’ve ever witnessed. This film shows the process of both free solo rock climbing as well as making a documentary about a person who is free solo rock climbing. The documentary locked onto a character who is an expert at his craft: Alex Honnold.

Free Solo is a documentary that benefits from the big screen experience

Alex is a professional climber, and has set his sights on a free solo climb of Yosemite’s 3,000 ft. high El Capitan Wall. If he is able to make the climb, he will be the first person to ever achieve it. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin, who is also seen in the documentary, and Elizabeth Chai follow Alex over a year as he preps, debates, and ultimately attempts to climb the steep wall with no ropes.

The tension built in Free Solo rivals many of the narrative features that have been released this year. Not to mention, if you have an aversion to heights, the cinematography will surely trigger your vertigo. The use of drones, long lenses, remote cameras, and camera operators suspended on parts of the mountain allow for some incredible shots and perspectives that non-climbers would likely never see. Now, those beautiful vistas of nature are disrupted by Alex scaling the various mountains or cliff walls, sometimes with ropes and other times without. His life often literally in his hands as he dangles vicariously with a minimal grip on the steep face.

Of course, for the tension to really hit, you have to be worried about Alex. He is willingly putting himself at risk everytime he attempts a climb. The film even makes sure to discuss the many free solo climbers – which basically means climbing without ropes or tethers and doing so completely alone – have died. Alex’s friends and new girlfriend play a vital part in earning empathy in the audience. They want to encourage him – not only because many of them are climbers as well, but they are also afraid for his well-being. Alex is functional, but also comically dysfunctional. There are at least two moments in the film where he is cooking, which looks questionable at best, leads to eating from the pan with the spatula he cooked with.

Alex’s relationship with Sanni is well documented over the course of the film. He admits that climbing takes first priority over anything else. His frugal lifestyle only emphasizes that. Thus, Sanni is in for quite the struggle, but watching his feelings for her develop really help win everyone over.  She doesn’t try and change him but definitely softens his own wall that she climbs over to help me have a more full life.

Final thoughts…

Free Solo has everything a person could want from a film. Great cinematography, compelling narrative, lovable characters, and lots of drama and tension. It’s definitely a documentary that even people who “hate documentaries” could enjoy. If you get a chance to see it on a big screen, the cinematography warrants it. Free Solo is a Must See!

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