Free Solo is a beautiful, nerve-wracking exploration of a near superhuman climber
It’s obvious what the marketing pitch is for Free Solo. Buy a ticket and you’ll be treated to breathtaking images of Alex Honnold, one of the world’s most celebrated rock climbers, “free solo” Yosemite’s impressive El Capitan, which is to say he climbs a 3200 foot wall with no safety ropes to catch him. The feat alone, which many have called one of the greatest athletic accomplishments ever achieved, is more than worth the price of admission. But like the best documentaries, Free Solo knows it can’t achieve true greatness on the merits of its central premise alone. It needs to tell a compelling story as well, and luckily for us, it’s just as up to the task as Honnold is.
The film follows Honnold as he embarks on a multi-year journey to prepare for the aforementioned climb. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi, along with a team of climbing film experts, methodically document Honnold’s painstaking process, which includes countless roped climbs memorizing every hold and crevice along Freerider, the incredibly dangerous route he decides on taking up the wall. Along the way, however, Chin and Vasarhelyi, don’t just expose the process of this Mensa-tested genius’s studious approach. They shine a light on an emotionally distant, deeply scared individual who would rather risk his life scaling the world’s most dangerous formations than perform tasks we take for granted, like talking openly to our partners or even eating vegetables.
Honnold is an equal parts compelling and frustrating figure, admirable in his dedication to his craft but utterly confounding in his difficulty to understand why anyone questions his increasingly life-threatening choices. By chance, the filmmakers are given a gift when Sanni McCandless enters Honnold’s life, a comparatively amateur climber whose budding relationship with him opens up both positive and dark elements of the reserved climber’s personality. On one hand, McCandless’s sunny disposition and emotional resolve bring out a warmth and worldliness in Honnold that the filmmakers were clearly struggling to bring out before. On the other, we see his nastier tendencies as he considers leaving her over a climbing injury she accidentally caused or when he coldly tells her staying alive for her is not even remotely a consideration for him. The filmmakers don’t try to prescribe any sort of diagnosis for Honnold’s strange personality: an early scene in the film reveals that an MRI shows Honnold’s amygdala simply doesn’t fire as easily as the average person, meaning he needs much more extreme stimulation to feel satisfaction, but the film doesn’t feel attached to this notion. It’s more interested in taking a cinéma vérité like approach, presenting this enigmatic figure simply as he is.
In essence, the film can be seen as an exploration of the consequences of being a genius with an insatiable need for success. Honnold’s usually razor-sharp focus is bombarded with new considerations he’s never had to face before: a woman he clearly loves in his own unique way, the prospect of falling to his death in front of not only a slew of cameras but also his close friends, and the possibility that he’s finally met a challenge he cannot overcome. Watching his thought process over the course of dealing with this uncharted emotional territory is what makes the film special. It’s easy to make a film about an abnormally talented individual; it’s another thing to make you simultaneously appreciate the might of his accomplishment and the personal risks he has to take in challenging his possible demise.
Of course, the ultimate climb is perhaps the most astounding sporting event ever caught on camera, a thousand-plus foot game of mental chess and incredible strength that is even more impressive on screen than it is when you first hear about what Honnold pulled off. It helps that Chin and Vasarhelyi have experience in this realm, making the equally astounding climbing film Meru, and it’s fascinating that the film takes steps to drive home the intricacies of shooting the climb. A complicated mix of roped cameramen, pre-positioned cameras, and drones come together to provide an immersive and intimate portrait of Honnold’s big day, and it’s all the more gripping when you realize every choice has been made to accommodate and protect him. Any mistakes on part of the crew and Honnold risks plummeting to his doom before their very eyes. In many ways, the filmmakers are as brave as their subject.
On a base level, Free Solo is not unlike the countless documentaries about thrill-seekers and madmen that have come before it. It has the same structure and style as many of those films, bringing up questions of originality throughout and sometimes stressing the boundaries of how interesting Honnold actually is. But ultimately the respect for the stakes involved, both physically and personally, is what the makes the film an edge-of-you-seat thriller about an event you know from the outset is a success. It’s a film enamored with the soul of an outsider, in awe of the lengths one will go to overcome a fear of everything. What the film is really about is up to the viewer, but rest assured that regardless of what deeper truths you’ll walk away with, you’ll at the very least smile knowing there are people in this world capable of things beyond our imagination.