Free Solo ★★★½

Alex Honnold, a 33-year-old free climber who scales the world’s tallest rock faces without rope or harness or anything else that might keep him from plummeting to an inconceivably awful demise, doesn’t have trouble justifying what he does for a living. “Anyone can conceivably die on any given day,” he said. He’s not wrong. But, on any given day, Honnold makes sure that he has a much higher chance of dying than the rest of us. On some June or July mornings, before most people are awake, Honnold has already climbed thousands of feet in the air and entrusted his existence to a bump of granite the size of his big toe.

It’s hard to imagine why someone would choose to do that, but certain men have always looked at the world as something to conquer, and feel personally taunted by the impossible. That’s how we got everything from the Myth of Icarus to the cinema of Werner Herzog. But what makes Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” such a fresh and uncommonly textured portrait is that the film isn’t content to just marvel at Honnold’s audacity. It also grapples with the desire to cure him of it. As this breathless and profoundly stressful documentary follows Honnold’s multi-year attempt to be the first person to ever climb El Capitan with his bare hands, the question of “why” is painfully answered by all of the reasons why not.

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