Free Solo (2018)
Dirs. Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Alex Honnold
[4 out of 4 stars]
Alex Honnold is not a household name, but he should be. On June 3, 2017, he became the first climber to free solo (climb without ropes or gear) El Capitan, a 3,200-foot wall of sheer granite in Yosemite. Free Solo (2018) is a remarkable opportunity to witness his ascent and, watching it, you cannot believe what you’re seeing. El Cap is, as professional climber Tommy Caldwell says, “the center of the rock climbing universe.” But until last summer, no one had ever climbed it without a rope. Honnold is not a newcomer to the climbing world and was well known before El Cap for his free soloing feats, including Half Dome in Yosemite, which he climbed in 2008. He says he’d been thinking about climbing El Cap since 2009, but each year thought it was just too scary. But he also knew that he wouldn’t be content until he gave it his best shot.
The film centers on Honnold’s quest as well as the lead-up to it, his training, and his background. Honnold is such a fascinating character and the feats he attempts daily so extraordinary that you almost don’t need his victory at the end for the film to be worth it; the movie, and his story, is captivating enough, a triumph of man over nature. Unlike other high-caliber professional athletes, Honnold does not have a team of doctors, nutritionists, and physical therapists preparing or caring for him. He does yoga on the floor of his van, where he lives, and cooks for himself on a tiny stove, eating straight out of the pan with a spatula. He has climbing friends who help him train and discuss strategy, but when he gets up there, it’s just him, the rock, and his own preparation. One tiny misstep or miscalculation, and he plummets to certain death. As Caldwell explains to Honnold, “Everybody who has made free soloing a part of their life is dead now.”
Honnold is well aware of the risks but is much more concerned about his friends watching him die than about actually dying. He has a brutally honest approach to the topic, saying, “Anybody could conceivably die on any given day.” He has accepted the possibility and moved past it. Death is very present for him, even more so when professional climber Ueli Steck dies during the making of the film. At one point, Honnold mentions how past girlfriends have said how miserable they would be if he died. His response: “No, you wouldn’t. Life goes on, you’d be fine. It’s not that big a deal.” Like many professional athletes, Honnold is entirely focused on his goal. He does not understand people whose goal in life is to be happy, explaining that “nothing good happens in the world” and “nobody achieves anything great” by being happy. It’s all about conquering your goal and achieving perfection.
The filming of the movie provided a challenge, as Jimmy Chin explains. He and his film crew — all of whom are professional climbers — know Honnold well and have worked with him for years and, Chin says, “It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death.” Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have made films about climbing before (Meru (2015)), but this is the riskiest climb Honnold has ever attempted, and they don’t want to distract him for even a moment or do anything that could cause him to slip up. We watch them grapple with the issue of how or even whether to film it. Luckily for us, they do, with a combination of fixed cameras, remote cameras, and a drone. Chin, Vasarhelyi, and their crew do a beautiful job of capturing just how unbelievable Honnold’s climb is. Close ups on his hands and feet reveal how miniscule the holds are that he is relying on. Hands covered in chalk, he’ll squeeze half his thumb onto a tiny ledge and use that as a hold. During one practice run, he goes up and down El Cap with a toothbrush, scraping at the granite to find minute variations that he could possibly use as holds. Certain pitches, or sections, are more difficult and require discussions of strategy and multiple practice runs as Honnold decides how best to handle them. In addition to these extreme close ups, there are enormous, dramatic wide shots to emphasize just how vast El Cap is. The wall is monstrous, and we zoom in and in… until we see Honnold’s red shirt, squashed in a crack in the granite, 2,000 feet off the ground. The effect is both terrifying and thrilling.
The more you watch Honnold, the more he comes to seem less like a human and more like a machine. He runs through the moves over and over again, rappelling up and down the pitches to practice them again and again. It’s not that he doesn’t make mistakes; we see him fall plenty of times. He’s just motivated to practice until every move is perfect. As he says, he works “through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore.” By the time he decides to attempt to free solo El Cap — a decision he makes without telling any friends or family, as he does with all of his free solo climbs — it’s just “autopilot.”
However, Chin and Vasarhelyi treat Honnold with humanity and grace, less of a documentary than a character study. We watch him navigate his first serious romantic relationship, which leads to difficult discussions about his motives and how much his new girlfriend figures into his decision making. We learn about his childhood and his parents, whose pursuit of perfection is part of his drive (one of his mom’s favorite sayings is “Good enough isn’t.”) Rather than focusing solely on his climbing feats, the directors also weave in biographical detail to establish his motivations, character traits, and unique perspective. Although Honnold seems at many points to be superhuman, the directors nonetheless remain grounded and focused on demonstrating his humanity.
The incredible thing about Free Solo is that we all know that Honnold succeeds, but we don’t care. We want to watch anyway because the feat is just so insane. I’ve seen the film twice now, and both times my hands were sweating and my heart pounding. You don’t have to be a climber or know anything about climbing to be absolutely transfixed by the film and fascinated by Honnold. Free Solo is unlike anything I have ever seen before, a rare opportunity to witness one of the greatest feats of mankind.