Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com