Alex Honnold is one of the most successful rock climbers of his generation, and his speciality is to take on his adventures without ropes or harness, with nothing to keep him on the mountains or cliff faces but his hands and feet. When we catch up with him in 2016, he may have made a comfortable living from his endeavours, financially, but he is staying in his van and supplementing his income with talks to the public who listen, aghast, at his tales of ascent. He admits he is a loner, and has not sought friendship or even romantic companionship since he prefers to be on his own, just him and the rock, but for almost ten years now there has been one challenge he has not had the guts to try...
Until now! The location is Yosemite national park, to be specific the El Capitan cliff which has been climbed before, but with great difficulty, and never without ropes. All Alex has to ensure he doesn't take a fatal tumble is his spider-like skill at hanging on, and despite that he makes sure to practice his attempt with some form of safety equipment. The thing is, he is not some daredevil who blindly races into danger without a thought to his own protection, he knows that what he is going to do could kill him, which doubtlessly is why he keeps others at arm's length. But as we see, recently he has acquired a girlfriend, Sanni, who just might be giving him more to live for.
More than the sense of achievement of getting up mountains unaided without dying, that is, which is certainly enough for many to feel satisfied, or imagine that feeling should you be one of the vast majority of folks who do not participate in extreme sports. For some viewers who wanted to get to the good stuff, that is, the climbing, the presence of Sanni was an irritant, yet she did provide a reason for Alex to get back alive, no matter her goes at domesticating him which obviously are not especially successful. Despite that, the impression is she gives our hero his space to do what he wants, knowing he would never listen to her anyway had she told him to stop altogether.
In the opening stages you imagine these climbers are a very successful bunch who always succeed in what they set out to do, and you are applying that to Alex as well, but then the husband and wife team of directors (who had previously made the Himalayan documentary Meru, much respected in the climbing community) ask him about the friends he has lost. It is here a montage of images of the celebrated exponents of this art who have not survived plays out, and if you had never heard of Alex before, nor whether he got away with his scaling of El Capitan, doubts begin to form in your mind about whether he can escape from this experience with his life, or at least intact. If you were familiar with Honnold, then it would be the action sequences (if you like) you were watching for, regardless of the outcome.
In that respect, there was a flaw here, and it was little to do with its protagonist, it was more to do with how the filmmakers drew out the story to one hour forty minutes of screen time. The climactic climb, after all, was going to take about a day for him to complete, if that, so in the run up to this, which lasted some months of preparation and vacillation, after a while you're thinking, look, just do it or don't do it, make up your mind - and you know in your heart of hearts, just as Alex does, that he is going to give it a go, so you could have shorn at least a quarter hour off the running time and Free Solo would be no less suspenseful. But there are incidents, such as a fall that sprains his ankle, that do excuse this pussyfooting around, so if you have a conscience you could feel guilty that in your mind you're thinking "DO IT! DO IT!" for quite a portion of the story. Certain aspects, like the tricky "jump" he cannot pull off even with ropes, add to the tension, so as a record of a remarkable sporting occasion, this is valuable, and the sensation is not to be underestimated once underway.