Free Solo

In the past, clever marketing mavens would present pseudo-serious warnings to filmgoers about the hazards of watching a particular film. That tactic undoubtedly sold tickets. Here, those with vertigo may want to strap in for quite a film.

“Free Solo” is a documentary about a mountain climber scaling notorious El Capitan alone, without any safety ropes.

The film is gripping, pun intended. The audience participates in the technical difficulty of the production. The cinematographers could not get too close to the climber, in fear it would affect his concentration, with fatal results. Shooting only from a distance would capture the scope of the attempted ascent, but it would fail to reveal the inherent danger.

The audience is also complicit with the filmmaker and indeed the climber in the potentially morbid nature of the documentary.

The film is about Alex Honnold, who comes across as impressive, crazy and skilled in equal measures. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin do an amazing job crafting the production for the utmost in intimacy and perspective.

What could be both boring and thrilling, the mountain climb here is portrayed in staggering fashion. A few practice sessions in Zion National Park and the unforgiving limestone mountains of Morocco provide the prelude to the main event.

Confirming the perennial power of a well-sourced score, Marco Beltrami’s music adds immeasurably to the film’s drama and sense of impending doom.

The film was made by National Geographic Partners, who undoubtedly wrestled with the moral conundrum of championing the bravura spirit evinced by Honnold and the fear of lesser mortals trying to repeat the feat.

Vertigo, indeed.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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