This National Geographic documentary may wind up being 2018’s most thrilling feature. It already has generated the year’s highest per-screen average and bested An Inconvenient Truth for biggest documentary opening average ever. Still, with all that success, the average filmgoer is more likely to mistake Free Solo for a gratis showing of the most recent Star Wars movie or a snarky internet take on said movie by vicious Last Jedi haters. Those in the know probably were introduced to thrilling climbing docs by filmmaking duo Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s debut, Meru (check it out for more heart-pounding tension).
Free Solo chronicles 26-year-old Alex Honnold’s record-setting ascent of Yosemite’s 3,000-plus-foot wall, El Capitan, sans ropes or safety gear. (Captain Kirk attempted the same feat in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.) Bearing witness to Honnold plunging to his death is an ever-present possibility at any moment of Free Solo, and the climber’s filmmaker friends, Chin and Mikey Schaefer, do not stop reminding viewers. Neither does Honnold’s new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who struggles with understanding why her boyfriend feels compelled to make a living so recklessly.
The resulting film elevates documentary to Mission: Impossible-level stunts: Think of Honnold as the Tom Cruise of free soloing. Climbing without a safety net is not an act Honnold takes lightly or decides on a whim. A new generation of climbers can learn a lot from the single-mindedness and diligent preparation Honnold puts into these stunning feats. Everyone else will be waiting until it is okay to breathe again. Free Solo may be the king of a mountainous year crowded with great docs.