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Review: Free Solo (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Alex Honnold in Free Solo

If great footage alone could constitute a great documentary, Free Solo would be one of the greatest. That remarkable thrill of which the finest cinema is capable is brought to the screen in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's doc, which is less a marvellous work than it is the chronicle of a marvellous act, though the directors' sureness of style guarantees that said act is never betrayed by the manner of its depiction or of its contextualization. And if it breaks little new ground artistically, the gravity required to make this movie more than just such a chronicle is in huge supply: the directors are close friends of Alex Honnold, whose record-breaking free solo scaling of Yosemite's El Capitan is the focus here, and indeed professional collaborators, as his climb and their movie take shape in tandem. This means something to them as it might mean nothing to the layperson in their cinema seat or living room sofa, and it's their and Honnold's combined passion and skill that make Free Solo mean something to us too.

If that meaning is purely visceral, then what viscera! As detailed in a humorous second-act scene, Honnold's amygdala is almost non-functional, and it'd take someone of similarly stoic disposition not to react to the stunning footage Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin capture. Their use of space - and such extraordinary spaces they have available to use - and perspective is superb, and ever in service of best representing Honnold's superb feats, of showing them in all their astonishing glory and for their most distinctive qualities. Those qualities are relatively limited in scope (mostly just how fucking high up all this shit is), though immense in scale; Chai Vasarhelyi / Chin search beyond their subject's bolder activities, travelling through more relatable terrain in profiling Honnold, his character, his relationships, his motivation. Free Solo is thus not solely a chronicle of a marvellous, ridiculous act, but also of what compels a person to commit a marvellous, ridiculous act like free soloing up El Capitan. In profile, they find his character flawed (if lovingly, though as friends you'd expect as much), his relationships strained (if genuine, and never outright negative), his motivation skewed. Their familiarity with Honnold has engendered a thorough portrait, albeit arguably too forgiving of his more questionable impulses.

Yet this is no hagiography, as Free Solo depicts Alex Honnold as a figure worthy of whatever judgements its viewers wish to bring upon him. This is among the movie's few complexities as presented, though one can but imagine the complexities involved in its creation, and in co-ordinating them so neatly as to design a feature of beautiful simplicity. There's little compelling argument for simplicity here save for that of focusing upon Honnold's achievement, though few individual movie sequences of late can claim to be quite so compelling. Nails will be bitten, and nails will be chewed clean off; eyes will widen, will look away, will look through fingers, will possibly explode out of heads. Breaths will be taken, breaths will be held. All that effort and time put into familiarizing us with Honnold, all for excellent purpose, but only that it might serve a most exquisite purpose: the pleasure of watching edited highlights (always the best way to enjoy sports or sports-adjacent activities, right?) of a truly great human achievement. Pointless? Absolutely. But great? Indubitably.

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