I gasped five times during E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's no-gear mountain-climbing study Free Solo. For one minutes-long stretch near the end, as we behold Alex Honnold's ropeless ascent up the sheer face of Yellowstone's 3,200-foot rock formation El Capitan, I cowered in my seat, giggling that nervous way I might in a car with a driver who is going way too fast.
The filmmakers capture Honnold's 2016 and 2017 attempts to complete the first "free solo" climb of these granite cliffs, and the suspense is thrilling, agonizing, perhaps indecent. One false move -- hell, one slightly imperfect move -- and Honnold will plunge to his death. Even the film crew worries, on camera, that maybe they shouldn't be there documenting this. What if their very presence is goading this most focused and fastidious of daredevils to take even one risk more than he might unobserved?
"I care about doing it a lot more than I care about being filmed," Honnold says, late in the film. That's a relief. But the film's biggest surprise, other than its welcome consideration of the qualms of its makers, comes from its brittlely funny portrait of Honnold as a person, especially as a partner. Affection doesn't come easy for Honnold, whose family, he reports, never used the word love, but as the relationship with his girlfriend, Sanna McCandless, matures, he seems to loosen up. To watch Honnold think through each ledge of his climbs can stop the heart; to watch him navigate human emotion might melt it.