'Free Solo' charts the story of Alex Honnold as he takes on the challenge of climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without safety equipment. The documentary follows him through his failures and successes as he attempts the previously unthinkable.
This documentary reaches for a lot but doesn’t grab you in the way it should. Its main fault is its incredible artificial nature, it is effectively a beat for beat Rocky film that neither feels authentic or true.
Early on, Alex, the eponymous free soloist, claims that he will never let a woman get in the way of his climbing career. Then lo and behold, ten minutes later, he has fallen in love with a woman and there is a lot of screen time given over to her questioning his life choices.
Unfortunately, there is not a whole heck to be examined. Alex has about the same amount of screen presence as the granite he is so often climbing. He’s often shot looking into the middle distance as if there is a real tormented genius bubbling within until he speaks and you realise that he's about as insightful as your mad drunk aunt's posts on social media. In fact, anyone with screen time is prone to this and at times, it borders on Christopher Guest levels of chatter.
Some screen time is given over to the crew themselves and what they think, but at no point is the question raised why they should be filming, if at all. So often there are beats that feel wedged in because that is what is expected to be in a documentary of this type rather than any real deep passion. There is some attempt to examine why a person would want to put their lives in such danger with a trip to the family home and an MRI brain scan but these utterly fail to follow up on any threads. The only real surprise here is that Alex indeed has a mother and was not built by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
Training for the free climb is the focus of the film but there is not much reason for it to happen other than that the film wouldn’t exist without it. The feature would work so much better if it was just focused on its task for the sake of doing it rather than jamming in “the feels”.
The real frustration is a great documentary is lurking in here. When it knuckles down to the climbing it really rolls along. There is a good mix of close up shots that give you a great sense of what it’s like to be on the cliff face and wide shots that reveal the scale of the task. When it focuses on the training, learning the route - effectively, the montage - it actually works well.
There isn’t much to recommend here unless you share a passion for rock climbing. Maybe in the hands of a more interesting documentarian, this could have been a boulder production but as it is, it falls flats.
James W. Anderson