Throughout the history of cinema documentaries have been treated by audiences as something lesser. They never get the attention that narrative movies do. That is until recently where instant streaming services have given documentaries new audiences. Docuseries have become super popular on Netflix and other places. However, the best documentary of the year can be found right now in theaters. It is Free Solo, the movie about professional rock climber Alex Honnold and his attempts to climb El Capitan without any safety equipment. Free Solo is one of the most intense experiences you will have at a theater this year and does an incredible job of exploring the human psyche.
Free Solo begins by introducing us to Alex Honnold, a record setting rock climber that seems more at home free solo climbing (a method of rock climbing where you don’t use ropes, harnesses, carabineers or any other sort of safety equipment) than communicating with humans, as he begins training in order to do a free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Now, a normal documentary would have just followed Honnold from his training to his eventual ascent of El Capitan. This movie would have been well shot and would have had a very intense final act, but it would have just been a merely good movie. Free Solo, on the other hand, wants to be something more. In Honnold, the movie has found one of the most interesting and unique main characters that you will ever see in cinema. Honnold struggles with social skills and is clearly obsessed with rock climbing and the pursuit of perfection. Through interviews with Honnold and the people who know him best as well as an entire segment where he gets an MRI to see if his brain works differently than a normal person’s, the movie makes a major effort in trying to discover what is going on in its main character’s head. While most of this may seem like a diversion, these moments end up becoming the most interesting parts of the movie other than the final ascent. Even a throwaway question about how Honnold used to respond to people who asked him if he was ever going to free solo El Capitan ends up being used to powerful effect in the final moments of the movie.
Not only is this movie intellectually interesting but it’s visually stunning too. It’s hard not to enjoy a movie that’s set in the elements of Yosemite and Morocco for most of its screen time, but this movie goes out of its way to show you how it was able to build up such great shots. Co-director Jimmy Chin’s attempts to film Honnold’s escapades end up becoming a minor subplot. Chin runs into so many dilemmas whether it’s how he’s going to set up a perfect shot on a sheer wall or the moral issues of filming someone who may die at any second, and the ways he responds to these questions are always informative.
Not since Grizzly Man has there been as good of a man vs. nature documentary as Free Solo.