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'Free Solo' review: Oscar-winning doc is visually dizzying, thought-provoking

In "Free Solo," Alex Honnold holds all of

In "Free Solo," Alex Honnold holds all of his climbing gear at the summit of El Capitan. Photo Credit: National Geographic/Jimmy Chin

DOCUMENTARY “Free Solo”

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel

WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the context of rock climbing, the title “Free Solo” becomes self-explanatory: It’s the act of climbing a rock formation alone and without equipment. Aside from good sneakers and a bit of friction-inducing chalk on the palms, there is nothing to prevent a free soloist from a fatal fall. These climbers are a niche group, for obvious reasons, but one, Alex Honnold, has become a minor celebrity for his increasingly difficult ascents. “Free Solo,” which just won the Oscar for best documentary, follows Honnold’s quest to become the first free soloist to scale El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-tall rock formation in California’s Yosemite National Park.

MY SAY Directed by spouses Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, “Free Solo” is a powerful combination of outdoor adventure story and thoughtful character study. The moment we meet Honnold, a lean and weathered 30-something with boyish jug ears, it’s clear he’s the real deal. Whatever wealth climbing has brought him, Honnold still lives a van, as he has for years. He eats meals with a spatula, wears the same clothes each day and bathes at friends’ houses. Neither glory nor fame is much in evidence; Honnold just seems to climb, climb, climb. (He also founded a nonprofit devoted to clean energy.)

Relationships don’t seem to interest him, but a sparkly-eyed blonde named Sanni McCandless recently slipped him her number at a book signing. The last thing Honnold needs while climbing El Capitan is a woman worrying about his safety — he’s worried enough — but McCandless is so good-natured and game that she’s hard to resist. She piles into the van, too. “She’s cute and small and livens the place up a bit,” Honnold says grudgingly.

This set-up is worthy of a Western — the call of the frontier versus the pull of the homestead — and it gives the coming rock-climbing sequences an emotional heft. Although Honnold has already scaled El Capitan some 40 times with safety equipment, he begins practicing again, memorizing every arm reach and foot position. Each time Honnold reaches a certain point that requires a difficult maneuver (dubbed the Karate Kick), he slips, falls and dangles by his rope — a rope that won’t be there when he makes his free solo ascent. Climbing, we learn, is a matter of not just physical ability but careful observation, the right decisions and an almost supernatural level of concentration.

Chin, who serves as cinematographer as well as co-director, is a climber himself, and he knows where to place his camera to induce maximum vertigo. Extreme close-ups capture minute irregularities in the rock face, just enough for a finger or toe to support Honnold’s weight. The complicated pulling, pushing and leveraging techniques on display here are marvelously ingenious — little testimonies to the human ability to solve any problem.

Between climbs, Honnold talks a bit about his absent father, his exacting mother and a solitary childhood. Honnold candidly admits to feeling a “bottomless pit of self-loathing,” and climbing is clearly a kind of therapy. In it he seems to find peace, pleasure and a sense of accomplishment — in short, something pure. Around other climbers, Honnold grows embarrassed by the film crew trailing him and chronicling what ought to be a personal experience.

At times, “Free Solo” follows the beats of a well-written screenplay. As the date of the climb nears, tension rises between Honnold and a slightly panicky McCandless. A premature attempt to make the ascent ends in retreat, and Honnold spirals into a proverbial Dark Night of the Soul. There’s also the figure of Peter Croft, an older climber with a Zen-like calm who serves as Mr. Miyagi to Honnold’s Daniel LaRusso. “Good for you,” Croft says reassuringly after Honnold abandons his climb. “You made the perfect decision.”

Nearly any film about climbing must grapple with the ancient question: Why do it? George Mallory’s apocryphal quote about Everest is the easiest answer: “Because it’s there.” Honnold, though, seems driven not by dreams of conquest but by the sheer joy, however fleeting, of the experience. His answer might be: Because I’m here.

BOTTOM LINE A visually dizzying but also thought-provoking film about one man’s pinnacle of achievement.

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