‘Free Solo’ doc climbs to great heights

February 8, 2019

“Free Solo” is a 2018 documentary from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. The film follows Alex Honnold, who in June 2017 became the first free solo climber to conquer the 3000 foot high El Capitan mountain. For those who don’t know, free solo climbing involves climbing above safe heights without protective equipment, so any mistake would most likely result in death. In honor of receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, the movie’s distributor National Geographic re-released it in select IMAX theaters. One of them was at AMC Boston Commons, so I decided to go in and see what all the fuss was about. While I still think that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was snubbed, I can say that “Free Solo” is the best documentary in this year’s Oscar race.

For starters, the filmmaking alone is why this movie deserves an Oscar. Chin and Vasarhelyi know how to keep us on edge with how they shoot Alex as he scales the mountain. In fact, I felt tense even after I left the theater, which is a testament to the directing and cinematography in “Free Solo.” The climbing scenes are so tense and nerve-racking that an eventual biopic could not replicate the same effect.

As soon as the film started, I knew seeing it in IMAX was the right decision. Although the movie was not initially released in this format, the digital conversion is still phenomenal since the filmmakers mostly shot the climbing scenes with a wide lens, which makes them perfect for a large IMAX screen.

Another aspect of “Free Solo” that I really liked was how it does not present Alex’s goal as easy, which makes the
journey even more extraordinary. Several interviewees, including Alex himself, all express their worry, though it’s not enough to prevent him from reaching his goal. Therefore, watching Alex succeed in climbing El Capitan is cathartic, because directors Chin and Vasarhelyi were able to make us sympathize with him throughout his journey.

Furthermore, I appreciate how the film doesn’t portray Alex as anything other than a normal person. There is one scene where Alex speaks at his high school about his charitable foundation that promotes solar energy in third-world countries, but that doesn’t make him any less relatable and therefore makes his accomplishments even more extraordinary.

While I admire “Free Solo” for showcasing Alex’s personal struggle, I do wish that it would’ve delved deeper into his reasoning for why he loves to put himself in these dangerous situations. Outside of a few hints, none of the more intimate scenes captivated me as much and pad out a documentary that is already under two hours.

Nonetheless, “Free Solo” is still one of the better documentaries I saw last year. It’s an inspiring story about following your dreams even in the face of danger that is capped off with breathtaking cinematography. I cannot stress enough how great of a theatergoing experience this film is.

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