It won the Oscar this year for best documentary, now come FREE SOLO also in USA cinemas and turns out to be much more than just a boring climbing documentary. We reveal more about this in our review of one of the most spectacular films of the cinema year.
That’s what it’s about
Every mistake, every little inattention can mean death: free solo climber Alex Honnold is preparing to fulfill his lifelong dream in the summer of 2017. He wants to climb the most famous rock in the world, the 975 meter high and almost vertical El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California. Free Solo means: on your own, without rope and without safety. The multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her cameraman, professional mountaineer Jimmy Chin, were allowed to accompany Honnold and captivate the audience with sensational nature shots in dizzying images.
Movie explanation of the ending
A really good documentary is able to stir up interest and, in the best case, even enthusiasm for a topic with which one has previously had no contact whatsoever. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” thus fulfills all the requirements for a potential hit in this often underestimated genre, because let’s be honest: who of us has ever experienced the sport of climbing and in particular its particularly risky upstart, free soloing tracked? The name says it all here: Free Solo is practiced alone – and by “alone” it doesn’t just mean that the athletes climb to dizzying heights without colleagues and other athletes, but – and this is where things get particularly hairy – they do so without any kind of protection waive. If you now add that the rock walls to be climbed usually rise vertically upwards, so from a physical point of view this shouldn’t actually work at all, and the mountains to be climbed often exceed the 2000 meter mark, and it becomes clear share equally the fascination and madness behind free climbing, which the celebrated climbing documentary “Valley Uprising” dealt with five years ago. At that time, newcomer Alex Honnold, who was the sole protagonist here, was only seen in a few scenes. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are now dedicating a solo film to him and his “Project El Capitan” – and it gives the term “breathtaking” a whole new, literal meaning.
El Capitan is over 2,300 meters high, and the free climbing route that Alex Honnold conquers is over 1,000 meters high.
Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi, who were already responsible for the climbing documentary “Meru” and are familiar with the material (Chin is a professional climber himself), chose the documentary format for their portrait of the now 33-year-old Alex Honnold. Basically, her “Free Solo” is a detour through many other genres. The climbing scenes, which of course make up a large part of the running time, develop the tension of a thriller, although Honnold does have a friend to support him for his training on El Capitan – unlike later on the final ascent. But Honnold doesn’t study the climbing steps very carefully for nothing, because only with precise choreography can the mountain monster be conquered later without protection. The path there is riddled with falls and injuries, although it is even more exciting to see how Honnold and his team develop a solution for every single chicane on “El Cap”. Particularly impressive: At one point, the given free climbing route can only be followed if the climber either jumps (!) or maneuvers around the corner with the help of a karate kick and then a precisely practiced foot sequence and dexterity. Honnold repeatedly fails at this passage and even stopped a training run before the actual climb on June 3, 2017 because the risk was too great for him. The tension among Alex and his crew is understandable and noticeable at any time, even without artificial (over-)dramaturgy.
It is precisely this pressure on the protagonist that adds a further narrative dimension to “Free Solo” and repeatedly raises the question of how justifiable it is to follow such a breakneck maneuver as the one described here with the camera. On the all-important day, a devastated cameraman with tears in his eyes asks his surrounding colleagues how they can even watch Alex’s climb – especially when he is at the boulder passage (where, by the way, he decides to do the karate kick , instead of jumping) escapes death by a hair’s breadth. The makers of “Free Solo” give a lot of space to this cinematic dilemma of whether the documentation of a real tragedy – after all, Alex Honnold could fall into the depths in front of the cameramen’s eyes – is morally justifiable or not, supported by a moving scene, in which the main character learns about the fatal climbing accident of a free solo artist friend. Without it being absolutely necessary, but due to the fact that it happened exactly during filming, we offered to go into it in more detail, this tragic incident shows you once again how insane this extreme sport actually is is. Or to put it in the words of one of Alex Honnold’s closest confidants: “People who know a little bit about climbing say: He says he can do it, so nothing will happen to him. And people who know exactly what he’s doing are panicking!”
Alex did it: he climbed El Capitan!
But as exciting, spectacular and sometimes self-critical as “Free Solo” is, none of that compares to the emotional component that those responsible particularly emphasize here. This is the only way they manage to turn the supposedly crazy person into a comprehensible character whose vision you will never question after watching the film – especially once you find out why the young man doesn’t seem to feel any sense of fear. A few short detours into his childhood as well as selected scenes from Alex’s current everyday life, which he shares with his girlfriend Sanni, are sufficient. It is touching how the young woman cares about her partner and how he somehow tries to reconcile his love for her and his passion for climbing. At the same time, it becomes clear at any time that he would hardly allow himself to be dissuaded from his plan to climb El Capitan just for Sanni (Alex’s mother comments on exactly the same dilemma in a few selected interview passages – fear for her beloved son); Sometimes he even hides things from her, such as the exact schedule, and lets her leave shortly before the maneuver so as not to be distracted by her. “Free Solo” is not a romance in the classic sense, but it gives the viewer hope for a happy ending for the lovers.
Conclusion: “Free Solo” is more than a climbing documentary: The portrait of the perfectionist free solo actor Alex Honnold is exciting like a thriller, touching like a drama, emotional like a romance and inspired without pathos and kitsch, so that you understand at the end of the film why someone wants to climb a 90 degree rock face without a net or false bottom. In addition, the breathtaking landscape photos speak for themselves.
“Free Solo” can be seen in selected USA cinemas from March 21st.