Free Solo is not a Star Wars prison break film, nor is admission complimentary for those attending by themselves. If audiences can get over those disappointments, they will discover an engaging and gripping documentary about a man who has spent his life climbing to new heights. This National Geographic documentary is playing in a limited run on IMAX screens through January 17th.
Alex Hannold is a 32-year-old professional climber who lives out of a van by choice. His favorite type of climb is called a “Free solo,” meaning it’s done without ropes or safety restraints. One wrong slip during a free solo and it’s all over, a risk that keeps being repeated throughout the picture. Alex is an interesting character study as a result of his apparent detachment from most people and the odd distance he prefers to keep with his girlfriend, who settles for a response like “I understand why you feel that way” when she tells him she loves him. (The only acceptable answers are “I love you, too” and “I know.”)
The surface that Alex is planning to scale without safety restraints is El Capitan, and he’s not talking about the Disney-owned movie palace in Hollywood. This El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park that is 7,573 feet tall and mountain climbers have struggled with it since the 1950s. Several climbers have successfully scaled portions of El Capitan or less perilous routes on a free solo, but nobody had completed the Freerider Line without restraints and all previous attempts took days, whereas Alex’s is planned for just a few hours.
The fact that a documentary film crew is following Alex is part of the film, as many of the cameramen are rock climbing buddies of his. It becomes part of the dialogue that they must be careful to not distract Alex or break his concentration. One of several rock climbing mentors even has a heart-to-heart with him about the fact that a free solo is a very personal experience and that opening it up to a documentary crew seems like a bad reason to do it.
A great deal of the film follows Alex as he prepares for the event, repeatedly testing the route with a harness and repeatedly missing perilous jumps and shifts around curves in the rockface. The film does an excellent job of showing just how impossible this climb is and you keep asking yourself why anyone would want to do this. Seeing it in an IMAX theater where the stadium seating is steeper by design, there were several times where I wanted to physically strap into my seat to make sure I didn’t fall. And when Alex finally makes his solo climb, you will wish he would have as well.
Free Solo is centered around a very interesting character, which is why it works so well as a film. You don’t have to be a climbing enthusiast or even have a knowledge of it in order to buy into Alex Hannold’s world and root for him to achieve his dream. In the tradition of the greatest Disney films, at its core Free Solo is about a man with a dream who will overcome every obstacle to achieve it.
I give Free Solo 4 out of 5 The North Face athletic shirts.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.