‘Free Solo’ review: Documentary is a breathtaking feat in cinematography

‘Free Solo’

Documentary by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Rated PG-13

Playing at Angelika Film Center

Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan is a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation that looms high, an impressively ominous geologic staple that certainly does not cry out to be climbed.

The documentary “Free Solo” asks the question of what kind of person sees this foreboding structure and feels possessed to not only scale it, period, but to do so without so much as a harness.

That’s Alex Honnold, a well-known rock climber who specializes in exactly that — free solo climbs, absent any safety restrictions. The film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is both a character study of this man and what drives him to this unfathomable pursuit and a movie about the art of making an impossible-to-conceive movie, period.

The picture doesn’t provide a lot of illumination when it comes to making sense of someone like Honnold, though it offers an affecting portrait of his burgeoning relationship with a woman named Sanni, and how she grapples with the fact that he willingly subjects himself to extreme mortal danger. There are also moments of introspection in which he articulates something like a general philosophical outlook on life and the pursuit of fearful things. “Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cozy,” he says.

The real key to “Free Solo” is in its depiction of the logistics and practical burdens of determining how to film Honnold’s pursuit, as well as the moral dilemma involved in the possibility of being unintentionally complicit in his death — simply by potentially distracting him.

It is an amazing cinematographic achievement, filled with breathtakingly intricate camerawork that gives such a tangible sense of the extraordinary dangers facing this man, that it’s as if you’re scaling this impossible dream right alongside him.