* * * * 1/2
Free Solo (2018, Dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin) documents what some are calling one of the most significant athletic feats ever accomplished – 31-year-old Alex Honnold’s successful free solo climb, without ropes or any kind of safety equipment, of the 3,200 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is essentially a vertical granite wall, incredibly difficult to climb even with ropes; other professional climbers in the film describe Honnold’s free solo as a “quantum leap” for the sport. For comparison, 3,200 feet is over twice the size of the Empire State Building, or about 478 feet higher than the tallest building on the planet, the Burj Khalifa. Of course, witnessing this feat in itself is shocking and near unfathomable, the stuff of highly entertaining cinema. But on a deeper level, this is a documentary about a human being animated by a kind of spiritual determination and focus, driven to achieve perfection and mastery at whatever cost.
Free Solo skillfully builds to the climax we’re all expecting. Along the way to the jaw-dropping event of Honnold’s climb, we learn about who he is, where he came from, and why, in his words, he’s doing this. Honnold’s background offers some clues to his motivations. He explains that his parents were not very demonstrative of their affection when he was a child; they never hugged him or told him they loved him. His mother instilled in him a kind of striving for perfection, with persistent messages like “almost isn’t good enough”. He was shy in his youth, and took up rock climbing as a hobby. He would climb alone initially just because he did not have any other friends to climb with. Biology also offers some clues to Honnold’s character and attitude toward risk. During the documentary, Honnold has an MRI done, which reveals an abnormal amygdala; essentially, it takes a lot more than is usual to activate fear or other emotions in him. Honnold himself describes his years of climbing and free soloing (i.e., his experience as opposed to his biology) as helping him to “step outside of his fear” and “expand his comfort zone”.
To the obvious question of why is he doing this at all, Honnold explains he is driven to perform and achieve perfection in his sport. For him, a successful free solo climb is clear evidence of perfection – if he had made any mistakes, he would be dead or seriously injured. An abiding “warrior spirit” (he makes references to Jedi and samurai during the documentary) demands that he maintain 100% focus on his goal. This laser focus is illustrated in Honnold’s seeming disregard and lack of concern for all things not related to climbing – he lived in a van for years, regularly eating out of pots with a spatula, and expresses a willingness to sleep on the carpet of his new home (as opposed to getting furniture). It is clear that Honnold is most at home when very far off the ground, when his life is literally on the line. At one point during his climb of El Capitan, at an altitude of about 2,000 feet, he completes a difficult maneuver and actually smiles and kind of waves at the camera, demonstrating a shocking comfort level given the situation. His friend, one of the cameramen documenting the climb, remarks how “Alex is having the best day of his life”.
Lending some relatable drama to this beyond belief story is Honnold’s relationship with his new girlfriend, whom he met at a book signing. After we are introduced to her, we notice the strain and stress in their relationship, largely a result of Honnold’s unwillingness to give up free soloing or compromise his commitment to the sport. He explains how during different climbs with his girlfriend, there have been a couple accidents that resulted in injuries for him. He nearly broke up with her as a result, a clear indication of his priorities at the time. Throughout the documentary, Honnold struggles to tell his girlfriend he loves her or offer her the kind of emotional support she is giving him. It is interesting that right after completing his climb of El Capitan, we hear Honnold for the first time tell his girlfriend that he loves her and appreciates her. It is as if, having achieved his goal, he is at least temporarily able to become emotionally open and vulnerable. Just as Honnold requires emotional distance in order to successfully achieve his goal, his friends and family require a kind of “armor” to live in his world, a world marked by regular mortal threats, each free solo climb a kind of looming reaper in the distance. His girlfriend and friends clearly struggle with Honnold’s apparent lack of consideration for his own safety (and how this in turn might impact them). After reading about a climber who recently died attempting a free solo, Honnold quickly shrugs it off, mentioning that it must not have been his day. One of his close friends, a professional climber who has also completed free solos, explains that he sees climbing with Honnold as a “vice”. Toward the end of the film, we hear Honnold’s friends and girlfriend express their mutual wish that he stop while he is, quite literally, on top. The question of whether or not he will continue free soloing dangerous peaks is unanswered at the end of the film, though it does seem like Honnold is content, perhaps willing to let a younger generation tackle the next El Capitan.
None of us would be able to properly marvel at Honnold’s accomplishment without the incredible efforts taken by the camera crew, who have managed to get near impossible, privileged and intimate shots of this singular event. All of the filmmakers documenting this story are professional climbers, and it seems like they all know Alex to one degree or another. This lends the film even more emotional poignancy, as during Alex’s climb of El Capitan, we watch some of the cameramen look away, unable to see their friend in such a precarious situation. Alex explains that for all of his previous free solo climbs, he would never tell anyone beforehand, not wanting to add pressure on himself. During the film, we see Alex abort an early attempt to free solo the mountain, as he is too distracted by the presence of the camera crew. He then spends more time preparing, explaining that the added element of an audience means he has to be that much more confident and comfortable with his technique and plan.
I did not expect to be blown away by this film or to experience it on the edge of my seat, heart pounding, attention rapt. Free Solo is arresting for a number of reasons. For one, it offers the general audience a rare opportunity to witness a life and death stakes athletic feat, one that is so clearly audacious and seemingly beyond human possibility. The image of Honnold climbing El Capitan presents us with a bit of cognitive dissonance – we are constantly thinking, “humans can’t do that…how is he doing that?”. It is surreal to watch Honnold approach the mountain, about to begin his ascent, walking past deer who are unaware of what this seemingly normal human being is about to do. Once we get more into the documentary, we get to know Honnold, his background and all of the elements that have made him who he is, and it starts to make some kind of sense. Most illuminating for me was watching all of the preparation that went into the climb – the countless practice runs up and down El Capitan with ropes and the assistance of other professional climbers, mapping out inch by inch the route, practicing maneuvers and micro-adjustments, going over tricky areas of the rock with a toothbrush to carve out a minuscule finger hold. For a thoroughly unschooled observer, with no background in climbing, it was an aha moment for me – it helped me to see that this really is a kind of art form, and in Honnold, we have one of its masters. But unlike other mediums and their respective luminaries, wherein the markers and indications of excellence are not always readily apparent (i.e., the average person may not be truly “blown away” by Beethoven’s 9th symphony), Honnold’s free solo climb offers us a kind of visceral, primal representation of what a flawless performance looks like.
One thing the Oscar’s got right this year was awarding Free Solo the Best Documentary Feature. It is a must see for anyone, regardless of your interest in rock climbing. This truly transcends sport, and is, more than anything else, a detailed portrait of what it looks like when someone gives their life over to a goal (however improbable that goal may be) – the sacrifices that are made, the achievements that are possible, the pain and joy inherent to the path. It is clearly not a path for everyone, and I’m not sure that it would be a good thing if we all lived like Honnold (it seems like we might not have much time for each other if we did!). But those rare few who do give themselves over so completely to a pursuit certainly give the rest of us something to talk about.