Remember how thrilling it was watching Tom Cruise squeeze in a little “Mission: Impossible” R&R years back by rock climbing without a rope? Well, how’s this for showing moviegoers the impossible: “Free Solo” devotes not just an opening scene but an entire documentary feature to professional climber Alex Honnold’s pursuit of this mind-boggling sport.
Yep, Honnold leaves the harness at home for the film’s main event, his bid to become the first free soloist to scale the sheer granite face of Yosemite’s monolithic El Capitan. Go figure that the year’s most outrageously harrowing action movie turns out to be an arthouse doc from National Geographic.
One spoiler alert straight off: Honnold, now 33, successfully completed the death-defying 3,000-foot ascent, in June of last year. Yet knowing this doesn’t make the story any less stomach-churningly suspenseful. Occasionally, the astonishing, vertiginous footage captured by director/mountaineer Jimmy Chin and his team might even make you forget the predetermined outcome. (We did — and this despite review logistics that necessitated watching on a laptop. We can well imagine how the movie plays in all its acrophobia-triggering theatrical glory.)
When the filmmakers aren’t climbing to shoot Honnold from all the most spectacular vantage points — we’re given some welcome, matter-of-fact glimpses of their gutsy process, lest drones get credit — they’re actively trying to climb inside their subject’s head. Chin and directing partner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”) capture an adventurer who’s one part earthy and two parts quietly, crazily intense — less a ruggedly handsome archetype than the Bond franchise’s Ben “Q” Whishaw, with washboard abs and a perpetually upturned gaze. He’s a van-dweller-by-choice who resists attachment because, well, the rocks are calling and he must go. (Love the scene where Honnold drops in for an MRI to see if his brain’s fear receptors are out of whack.)
If the film loses traction at all, it’s in offering close-ups of Honnold’s budding romance with eventual live-in girlfriend Sanni McCandless, and what it means for someone with such uncompromising focus to, yes, compromise. There can be a comparative reality-TV self-consciousness to some of these segments, even if a scene of McCandless privately welling up with suppressed dread is achingly, relatably raw.
Surprisingly, some of the movie’s richest emotional reserves lie, again, in the snippets with Chin’s crew, all of them Honnold’s not-so-secretly concerned friends. “Alex is having the best day of his life,” says one thoroughly stressed El Capitan cameraman. “Not me!” Such is the “Free Solo” experience, with all of its thrills, chills, and spills. Or not, fingers crossed.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. At Coolidge Corner. 100 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.