“If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get,” says adventurous, daredevil rock climber Alex Honnold, the subject of directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin‘s astonishing new documentary “Free Solo.” A term used to describe the act of mountain-climbing without safety ropes, the hard-to-watch insanity that is free soloing is a very real, very thriving sub-culture the exists today. And Honnold, a death-defying, free solo-ing obsessive, is crazy enough to attempt his ultimate pièce-de-resistance on screen: a trek up the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. Just one poorly calculated misstep and Honnold falls to his death.
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Honnold’s fixation with the Yosemite climb elevates Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film to such great, anxiety-inducing heights. Having directed the already-breathtaking “Meru”— about three elite climbers (one of them Chin) who struggled to ascent to the peak of the most perilous Himalayan mountain— that doc is a remarkable effort, but “FreeSolo“ is dumbfounding on a whole other level. The directors follow Honnold, over a span of over two years, as he prepares to pull off the near-suicidal stunt, with high-definition cameras there to capture it all in terrifying clarity.
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Slowly setting up Honnold’s backstory, the filmmakers make you emotionally invest in the mountaineer by interviewing key figures from his life. At 19, as a shy, nerdy kid Honnold lost his father, the man who introduced him to rock climbing. His mother, interviewed in the movie, took over as the breadwinner of the house when dad passed away and was forced to accept her son’s irrational preoccupation of scaling hazardous heights without safety equipment.
At one point in the film, Honnold’s brain is scanned to assess the activity in the Amygdala, the part of the human mind which triggers stress and fear, and the results are astonishing. The lack of activity in Honnold’s MRIs stuns the doctors. However, it’s not a surprising revelation: Honnold is an impossibly serene person, to the point where the people closest to him can’t even remember the last time he cried. Despite admitting that he’ll never put a love interest before climbing, Honnold does have a girlfriend (Sanni McCandless), and her apprehension and fear is an excellent source of the movie’s emotion center throughout the film. It’s a terrific anchor of audience identification too. Through treacherous climbs that scream death wish, Sanni sticks with Alex, even sleeping over at his “home,” which is basically a van parked wherever his next precipitous climb is located.
The set-up in “Free Solo” can sometimes be repetitive, as the filmmakers continuously fawn over their subject’s accomplishments in the nerve-racking build-up to the main event. However, the absorbing lure of the movie, the climactic, terror-provoking Yosemite climb itself, is overwhelming and worth the wait. With Vasarhelyi and Chin’s cameras strategically located to capture everything for maximum harrowing, cinematic effect, once the vertiginous ascension begins, in the last 20 or so minutes of the film, hold on to your seats: “Free Solo” turns out to be one of the most breathlessly thrilling sequences one will ever experience in a theater. [B+]
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