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With: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/28/2018

Free Solo (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mountain Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While it's not particularly outstanding or revealing during its depiction of its subject's day-to-day life, this National Geographic documentary's final 20 minutes captures a truly monumental moment in human achievement.

In Free Solo, climber Alex Honnold is one of a tiny percentage of humans that free solos, or climbs without any kind of rope or safety gear. As the documentary begins, he has already tackled the 2000-foot Half Dome in Yosemite, California, and has his sights set on the nearby 3000-foot El Capitan. He practices and learns each and every little shelf and crevice, and at the same time, he meets Sanni McCandless, who becomes his girlfriend.

During his months of training and practicing, he falls, twice, and injures his ankle. When the time comes to climb El Capitan, he quickly realizes that something is not right and gives up. Then, in June of 2017, he tries again. Will he do what no human being has ever done before?

But as Free Solo goes, it becomes clear that Alex is a problematic subject, distant and unemotional and perhaps even a little arrogant, and the movie has very little idea how to really explore these human factors. It tries to capture ordinary life-moments, but the camera setups often draw attention to themselves. The movie also eavesdrops on Alex and Sanni, as she patiently tries to come to grips with his laissez-faire attitude about dying, but it can't manage to understand Sanni's side of things. The movie seems more focused on hero-worshipping Alex, with his warrior's way of life.

The score by Marco Beltrami likewise tries to add some emotional pull to these early sequences and never quite works, although the suspense music during the last act is outstanding. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (a climber himself), Free Solo is, finally, a movie that knows mountain climbing.

The filmmakers clearly love dropping all the insider terms for various handholds and footholds, and it interviews other experienced climbers, as well as professional climbing cameramen and professional climbing journalists. And all these little details add up to an intensely gripping finale that is guaranteed to make palms sweat, and makes the whole venture worthwhile.

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