Feel free to find your own meaning in “Free Solo.” Maybe you’ll see it as a movie about defying death (while courting it), or transcending fear (without banishing it), or solving problems (through excruciating attention to detail), or simply as an expression of the unquenchable human spirit. It’s all of those things and more. Specifically, though, this National Geographic documentary feature is a heart-stopping account of an ostensibly impossible endeavor—climbing the sheer wall of El Capitan, the 3,200-foot granite monolith in Yosemite National Park, for the first time ever with no safety gear and no more equipment than two hands and two feet, plus a little bag of chalk for keeping fingers from slipping. The climber, Alex Honnold, acknowledges the law of gravity, but doesn’t let it get him down. He’s Spider-Man minus the webs, or the star of his own version of “Vertigo.” Give him enough rope and he’ll leave it behind.
The first shot prompts awe mingled with disbelief—a tiny figure in a bright red shirt, seen from above, clinging to the face of an immense cliff. Then it’s uphill all the way in a piece of portraiture that’s as stirring as it is thrilling. Great documentaries, of which this is one, need great subjects, and Honnold fills the bill; he’s thoughtful, funny, articulate and self-reflective—and fatalistic to a scary degree.
“I feel like anybody could conceivably die on any given day,” he tells a TV interviewer. Well, yes, but anybody climbing cliffs without ropes steepens the odds for early expiration. Honnold knows this, and weighs the risks against the ecstasy of the experience.
By the same token, he is fanatical about risk reduction. Apart from the climactic climb, the most fascinating part of the film is rehearsing for the climb, a process that may actually contain useful lessons for us mortals who trip over our shoelaces. Time after time, month upon month, he scales El Capitan—with ropes—to chart a potentially ropeless path. He studies the rock almost microscopically for footholds, toeholds, handholds, finger-or-thumbholds, figures out how an arm will reach up or across at a given point while a leg finds a secure perch. The angels are in the details that fill the pages of his climbing journal, which might look, to a casual observer, like the dense jottings of a patient in a psychiatric hospital. No poetic observations about nature’s glory, only inch-by-inch directions for the journey to be taken.
As you watch his triumphant climb, the suspense is almost unendurable, even though you know that he’s not going to fall to his death. Yet the elation is equally intense. This is what a person can do by setting mind, body and spirit to an epic task. “I’m sort of at risk of crying,” the climber declares after the climb. It’s one more risk he manages successfully.