No, “Free Solo” isn’t the latest “Star Wars” installment. Upon reflection, however, fans of that franchise should make sure to see this riveting film, if only to experience action and derring-do at its most high-stakes, awe-inspiring and jaw-droppingly true. This often breathtaking real-life man-against-nature adventure is the second film co-directed by Jimmy Chin, who in 2015 made “Meru,” an even more spectacular, unnervingly immediate portrait of climbers attempting a death-defying ascent in the Himalayas.
In “Free Solo,” Chin teams up again with his “Meru” co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, with the team chronicling the exploits of champion climber Alex Honnold, whose specialty is scrambling up mountains and virtually any vertical plane without benefit of equipment or safety devices. In a bold, even reckless iteration of working without a net, the filmmakers follow Honnold as he sets out to be the first person ever to solo climb El Capitan, an imposing, sheer, 3,000-foot-high rock face in Yosemite National Park.
The pure athletics of “Free Solo,” which chronicles Honnold’s months-long training regimen as well as his subsequent attempts, would be spectacle enough to create an entertaining film. As they proved with “Meru,” Chin and Vasarhelyi aren’t only accomplished climbers themselves, but they are adept at being so nonintrusive that it takes a few moments to realize they’re taking the same risks as their subjects, only with heavy cameras (but, unlike Honnold, with potentially lifesaving ropes and harnesses). In “Free Solo,” the filmmakers are on hand to capture two life-changing episodes at once: Honnold’s realization of a longtime ambition, as well as an unexpectedly serious romantic relationship, which will have implications not just for his monastic, isolated lifestyle but also for the physical and mental focus he will need to conquer El Cap.
A fair portion of “Free Solo” is dedicated to Honnold’s complicated emotional issues, as it becomes clear that his obsession with climbing is deeply connected to a lonely childhood, demanding parents and wobbly self-esteem. The armchair hypothesis is that he has faced his most primal fears by taking what many observers might consider irrational risks. As Honnold becomes closer to his girlfriend, what had been his personal grail begins to look less heroic than irresponsible. Meanwhile, Chin and Vasarhelyi and their crew — as well as the peers who are coaching Honnold through his mission — must come to grips with the fact that they may be aiding, abetting — and maybe even filming — their friend’s gruesome and early death. (It’s not a weakness of the film but a frustrating characteristic of its main character that he sometimes seems either incapable of or uninterested in conjuring conventional levels of empathy and self-awareness. Put another way, he’s not always as interesting, or even as likable, as the audience may want him to be.)
No spoilers here, but it bears noting that “Free Solo” won an audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, and it has already broken box-office records as it arrives in theaters. True to form, Chin and Vasarhelyi have made a film that works both as a praiseworthy historical document rich in context and visual detail, and as a gripping emotional journey full of mythical resonance. Believe the hype, and go see “Free Solo.” Because it’s there.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 100 minutes.