Free Solo

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieFree Solo

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu and Disney+

The Pitch: One of the world’s best climbers decides to scale El Capitan, the most impressive rock face on the planet, without any ropes to protect him. Will he make it, or fall to a horrible death?

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Watching movies which take place in the great outdoors is a decent way to fight off feelings of stir-craziness during this pandemic, and the Oscar-winning Free Solo, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, is about as wide open as they come.

The film follows professional rock climber Alex Honnold, who, after eyeing a free solo climb of El Capitan for years, finally decides to give it a shot. The film feels like half sports movie and half character study, with a good portion of the movie devoted to Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend and how their dynamic changes as he gets closer to achieving his longtime goal. It’s a story of intense focus and obsession – there may be no more striking example of the importance of preparation than this movie.

Alex’s historic climb is compelling and terrifying in equal measure (my palms were literally sweating as I watched it), but I think the most interesting aspect of the film may be that it was captured at all. A significant amount of the movie is spent on the moral quandaries of the crew, many of which know Honnold well: would their very presence alongside him on the rock face cause a distraction that would kill their friend? These guys have to decide if it’s worth it to capture what they hope will be one of the great feats in human history, but the harsh reality is that at any moment, they could be looking at their buddy through a viewfinder and possibly see him fall to his death. The stakes could not possibly be any higher.

Last summer, my wife and I hiked Half Dome, a nearby mountain in Yosemite National Park that’s more than a thousand feet taller than El Capitan. (Unlike Alex Honnold, we used ropes for the most dangerous stretch of the hike.) On the way out of the park, we stopped briefly at the base of El Capitan (near where Alex is walking at the start of this trailer) so I could get out of the car and behold the rock face up close. The movie does an excellent job in many regards, but it cannot translate the feeling of staring up at this thing in person and knowing that Alex was up there cheating death. But since Yosemite is currently closed because of the pandemic, watching Free Solo will have to do until it opens again.

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