Free Solo

Revisiting the 2018 Best Documentary Academy Award Winner

By Bradley Lane

Documentary filmmaking is perpetually challenged by a simple question: to what degree can you film a subject without affecting their actions? Free Solo pushes that question to its extreme by upping the stakes to a life or death scenario. The ethical questions behind filming an extremely dangerous athletic feat are intriguing and certainly visually stunning, but it’s the intimate character study of its subject that separates Free Solo from a crowded space of other feature length documentaries.

Free soloing is a form of rock climbing that involves no ropes or any other equipment, completely unassisted. Alex Honnold, our subject in Free Solo, is the world’s foremost rock climbing, and more specifically, free soloing expert. He became the first person to ever free solo the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite in 2008. A 2,000-foot-tall sheer cliff, with nothing but his body and a chalk bag to scale it. It’s a crazy thing to try and free solo any cliff, much less El Capitan, 3,000-foot-tall cliff, and generally regarded as one of the most challenging routes in all of climbing. Free Solo documents Honnold’s free solo attempt of El Capitan, the actual climb, but more than that, it documents the limits of human dedication, discipline and skill.

Alex Honnold has trouble expressing his emotions to others, and even to his partner. But when Honnold gets onto a wall, he finds his place. It is clear from the moment Honnold sets foot on a wall, that there is absolutely nowhere he would rather be. This does not mean Honnold is invincible, though; in fact, much of the film’s ideological presentations are questioning whether or not filming someone in a scenario where any wrong move means certain death is ethical at all.

The first impression most will have after they view Free Solo for the first time will most definitely be the white-knuckled tension and awe of the actual attempt. It is filmed with stunning cinematography and conveys so much entirely visually. However, the final climb works so well thanks to a well-crafted and expertly framed set-up that gives the climb an additional emotional weight.

Free Solo succeeds through Honnold’s sheer force of will. It is a beautiful, often thoughtful portrait of the depths of human dedication. Free Solo is available for free with a Hulu subscription and can be purchased or rented through any video-on-demand services. -4/5