“Anyone can conceivably die on any given day.”
If heights make you queasy in any way, shape, or form, stay away—far, far away—from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s new documentary, Free Solo. It is not for the faint of heart. Unless you like watching a maybe-lunatic dangle from his fingertips thousands of feet up a sheer rock face without any sort of backup plan. If that’s your jam, you’re very much in luck.
Free Solo follows rock climber Alex Honnold. His preferred sport is hairy enough under the best circumstances, but he practices a particularly gnarly branch called free soloing, where climbers mount difficult pitches without ropes or other safety gear. Honnold is one of the most well-known and celebrated of his ilk and the film tracks him as he attempts be the first to free solo El Capitan, the 3000 ft Holy Grail of rock climbing.
The sheer feat of ascending El Capitan sans rope is enough to make Free Solo worth a glimpse. On its own, it’s an incredible athletic accomplishment. Exquisitely filmed by a strategically placed camera crew dangling from ropes, piloting aerial drones, or shooting through long-distance lenses, it’s breathtaking to behold from the very first image. It’s gorgeous and harrowing and the views alone are enough suck the air out of your lungs. But what makes the film is Honnold, a truly fascinating subject. He elevates it from triumphant spectacle of human achievement to gut-wrenching emotional tour de force.
Like most singularly driven people, Honnold looks like a raging weirdo to outsiders. Living in a van, by choice, he sacrifices every other element of his life to climbing. He’s socially awkward and has trouble interacting with other people when it’s not about his passion—he has more anxiety about holding a friend’s baby than he does swinging off a rock face with only a thin sliver of granite holding him from certain death. El Capitan is something that has consumed his mind for years, but it seems insane even to him.
Free Solo documents his life and preparation for the El Cap mission. Meticulous in his approach, Honnold climbs each pitch, practicing and tracking every single move, working out the best strategy. We see the toll it takes on his long-term relationship—his partner must be a damn saint to contend with him and she, of course, has conflicted feelings on the matter. He faces injuries—at one point he climbs with his foot in a walking boot—and both naysayers and friends who want to help and be supportive, but also don’t want to watch someone they care about plummet to his doom.
This includes the camera crew. Watching them ponder whether or not they want to do this, if their very presence will either lead to Honnold pushing himself too far or negatively impact the delicate headspace he has to be in, adds another level to the film. Even as they wait to film, they wonder if this is the day they see someone die and we witness them debate and deliberate over the moral and practical applications of that knowledge.
Honnold climbing El Capitan with no ropes, with no safety net, is one of the most stomach-twistingly tense things I’ve ever witnessed on film. Multipel times I realized I wasn’t breathing. It appears so completely absurd and reckless to a spectator, but where Free Solo succeeds most is that it makes the audience understand this quest and what pushes him. And seeing him as it unfolds drives this home like no other.
When he climbs, Honnold becomes a different person. On the ground, he’s strange and difficult and never comfortable in his own skin. All of that changes when he climbs. He’s happy and at ease and natural in ways he’s not anywhere else in his life—he may be 2000 feet up and literally hanging on for his life, but he exudes a serene calm like nowhere else in the film. Even though it looks unhinged, maybe even stupid, to the rest of us, the expression on his face makes it clear why he does what he does.
On one hand, Free Solo is a niche movie about an incredibly specific topic. That makes it interesting, but what makes it great are the broad strokes. It’s about passion and obsession, dealing with fear and striving for grandeur, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. To quote Honnold, “Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cozy.” [Grade: A]