‘Free Solo’: The Oscar-Winning Doc Soars With Harrowing Exhilaration

Free Solo
Jimmy Chin/National Geographic

Who’s ready for some armchair vertigo?

Even Spider-Man might have second thoughts about scaling the 3,000-foot sheer wall of granite known as Yosemite’s El Capitan — the holy grail for celebrated climber Alex Honnold. His fame stems from his specialty of free soloing, which means he makes each perilous ascent unburdened by ropes or other safety equipment.

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In other words: the definition of death-defying athleticism. The riveting and Oscar-winning Free Solo follows Honnold on his quest over two years to tackle “El Cap,” a feat that is visually breathtaking — in that you can’t help but hold your breath as this lithe young man grasps at minuscule hand-and footholds to inch his way up the forbidding façade.

Even the camera crew, who’ve come to know and admire this taciturn daredevil, can barely look. And yet you can’t turn away from the spectacle, marveling at Honnold’s intense focus and indefatigable zeal.

Not that Free Solo makes it look easy. The film steps back to examine the anxieties challenging this bold endeavor from all sides. Will the photographers documenting the climb, led by codirector Jimmy Chin, be a fatal distraction? Will his new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, get inside his headspace and dent his mental armor?

Honnold’s embrace of what he calls “warrior culture” leaves him undaunted. “There’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death,” he says, noting that any mistake could be fatal. “It does feel good to feel perfect — even for a brief moment.”

In those moments, Free Solo soars with harrowing exhilaration.

Free Solo, Documentary Premiere, Sunday, March 3, 9/8c, National Geographic