I’ll admit it: The Cinépolis Euless theater has been open for almost two years now, and I haven’t been there once. This, even though it’s on my route to the AMC Grapevine Mills theater, which is a considerably farther drive. There’s a simple reason for this: The Grapevine theater frequently plays movies that are showing nowhere else in Tarrant County, whereas the Cinépolis always seems to be playing movies that I can see without making the drive up Highway 121. That’s not the case this week, though, because the Euless multiplex is showing Free Solo, the most breathtaking documentary I’ve seen so far this year, starting this weekend. If they program more films like this, I’ll have no choice but to drop in for a visit.
The film is a profile of Alex Honnold, the professional rock climber from Sacramento who has traveled the world climbing up sheer rock faces. Co-director and fellow climber Jimmy Chin follows Alex through 2016 and into spring 2017, as Alex prepares to make his historic ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. What makes his climb historic is his intention to surmount the 3,000-foot rock formation “free solo,” meaning without the aid of any ropes, harnesses, or safety equipment to protect him if he should fall. No one has ever done that at El Cap.
What impels a man to do something so dangerous? It would be easy and not wrong to say that, like the ill-fated George Mallory with Everest, Alex wants to climb El Capitan because it’s there. However, Chin has been a personal friend of Alex’s for at least 10 years, and he’s able to use his closeness with his subject to his advantage. Alex’s on-camera manner is smooth, honed by years of media appearances, and yet there’s some part of him that’s shut off even while he recalls a childhood with parents who never showed him much affection. Climbing these rocks seems to be his way of affirming his self-worth: In the fall of 2016, he aborts an attempted climb of El Capitan, goes back down, and says, “I just suck.” Then again, maybe it’s an attempt to live in a state of mental focus — besides physical fitness, rock climbing demands absolute concentration for hours at a time, because one mistake can mean death. While he’s preparing for the climb, Alex has a serious girlfriend for the first time in his life, and he can’t help but notice that while he was injury-free during many of his single years, now that he’s met Sanni McCandless, he’s constantly picking up knocks. Nevertheless, Sanni seems able to get through to him in ways that nobody else can.
This film is about its own making as much as it is the climb, since Chin and his crew are up on the rock face with Alex (though at a safe distance away) so they can film him. While they’re using ropes and protective gear, they live in terror of doing something that will cause Alex to fall. Using drones and cameras fixed in strategic places, they show you just how tiny the toeholds and handholds are that Alex uses to pull himself up. Overhead shots show you his altitude and how little it would take for a fatal slip. Chin and his co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi edit all this into a narrative as gripping as any Hollywood drama. Speaking of which, composer Marco Beltrami is the one big Hollywood talent associated with the project, and he dials down his usual bombastic tendencies to underscore the suspense during Alex’s four-hour journey to the top.
Your reward for this is some magnificent shots of natural beauty, and even if you’ve been to Yosemite, it’s unlikely that you’ve seen its wonders from the angles that this film provides. Free Solo is sublime – its reality is so awesome that it dwarfs you. And at the center of it is Alex Honnold, a man whose remarkable, crazy-ass accomplishment expands the boundaries of what we think to be humanly possible.
Starring Alex Honnold. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Rated PG.