What makes someone want to climb up a mountain without any ropes, without any safety net? This is the question at the heart of Free Solo, a new documentary, that follows Alex Honnold who does just that. Meru directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have made a hair-raising film that at times becomes a fascinating look at the toll such behavior takes on the people around Honnold.
Honnold is a charismatic guy who has a girlfriend whom clearly loves him very much. He is surrounded by friends as well, who willing climb with him to record his feats. So why does he keep risking it all for the thrill? At any moment he could fall to his death and the ones who are close to him would have to witness the horror of it.
Early in Free Solo, Honnold confesses that he wants to climb El Capitan, a 3000-foot high mountain in Yosemite Nation Park. The climb is particularly tricky when one decides to forgo the safety equipment. This is Honnold's Everest.
One has to wonder if Honnold's appetite for this will go away once he conquers El Capitan. Will he set a personal and world record or will he plummet to his death? This is the central tension of Free Solo. Others have tried this and failed.
Free Solo only occasionally explores the dynamic of his crazed hunger for climbing free of ropes against the desire of those who love him for him to stop. When it does Free Solo moves beyond a gorgeous looking climbing film into a documentary about mortality. Both elements work but I wish there were more of the latter.