Free Solo Movie Review
Free Solo Trailer
By Caroline L.
February 26, 2019
Free Solo is a documentary film from National Geographic about rock climber Alex Honnold, who does mind-boggling, vertigo-inducing free solo climbs (a form of climbing in which the climber scales pitches alone and without using any ropes, harnesses, or other protective equipment). The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday. The story focuses on Honnold’s 2017 free solo ascent of El Capitan, a 3200 ft-high chunk of sheer granite in Yosemite National Park. Honnold is the first and only person to free solo El Capitan, therefore holding the fastest ascent time.
The movie begins with a harrowing aerial shot of Honnold climbing a crack on the wall of the monster that is El Capitan. The visually staggering view of the face of the rock makes the California black oak trees at its base look miniscule. Chalk flies off of Honnold’s hands as the only thing that breaks the deafening silence thousands of feet off the ground is his own heavy breathing.
Honnold’s attitude and personality match his frugal and ascetic lifestyle. He lives in a van, eats with a spatula out of his pots and pans, and rarely ever buys new clothes or invests in new gear; however, something about the way he lives is so attractive and enticing. He seeks thrill, and the lifestyle he maintains allows him to do so. From any viewer’s perspective, what Honnold does is a little crazy. But watching it, I couldn’t help but wish for some of the aspects of his lifestyle.
He’s a wonder of sorts. It’s hard to imagine anyone climbing up such a beast like El Capitan, much less without ropes or protection of any sort. In an interview early in the movie, a talk show host asks Alex, “Here is what I don’t understand. One little mistake, one little slip, and you fall and die.” Honnold responds, “Yeah, I mean, uh, you seem to understand it pretty well… And I feel like anybody could conceivably die on any given day.” Maybe it’s this—Honnold’s cavalier attitude that makes him so open to trying freakishly dangerous climbs.
Honnold’s emotions and personality (or lack thereof) are explored a little more in the film. Honnold visits a doctor who has him look at images that would normally trigger a reaction in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. Honnold has no reaction, and so in order to find an answer as to why this may be, the film delves even further into his personal life and takes a look at the early life of Honnold and his family. We come to find out that Honnold has suffered his fair share of trauma; his mother and father divorced when he was in high school, and shortly after, his father died. His father also had Asperger’s syndrome, which suggests where Honnold’s lack of social skills and general emotion could have come from.
Although I’ve painted a morose and depressing picture of Honnold, what I’ve described is not to overshadow his true personality. He’s goofy at times, and despite his traumas and seemingly hard, austere personality, he’s not a complete robot. In an interview by a friend in 2016, about a year before his historic climb of El Capitan, he was asked whether or not he would ever free solo that rock. He laughs, “I mean, you know, think about it, it’s freaking scary.” This reminds us—Alex is human, only a few thousand feet closer to death than the rest of us.
As the movie progresses, the bond between Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, grows. McCandless helps Honnold see the bigger picture of life outside the world of climbing, and when she finally lures him out of his van to Las Vegas to look for a home, it feels as if some big landmark has been reached—not only the obvious, moving-in-together landmark but an emotional step for Honnold (even if he only agrees because of the climbing opportunities in Las Vegas).
McCandless desperately tries to understand Honnold’s desire for climbing so dangerously. As she drives away from Yosemite Valley before Honnold’s big climb, crying, she stutters, “You know, like I shouldn’t be having that thought… of like ‘What if something happens? Like what if I don’t see him again?’” This profound emotion is what seems to escape Honnold at times, and we see in the film that McCandless is not unaware of this.
As if the story and characters themselves aren’t enough, this would not be a proper review if I were not to mention the camera crew. The crew who worked on Free Solo was a group of highly-skilled climbers, filmographers, and photographers, including Jimmy Chin and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who spearheaded the task of filming Honnold—a daunting responsibility, considering the fact that Honnold was on the brink of death the whole time and one wrong move by a cameraman could cost him his life. Drones are not allowed in Yosemite, so Chin and his team had to be innovative with their camerawork, while also being safe and wary of Honnold.
“I’ve always been conflicted about shooting a film about free soloing just because it’s so dangerous,” says Chin. “It’s hard to not imagine your friend Alex soloing something that’s extremely dangerous and you’re making a film about it, which might put undue pressure on him to do something and him falling through the frame.” This ethical dilemma is one expressed by Chin’s wife, too. “We had this ethical question: Is he more likely to fall when we were there because we can be a distraction than if he is by himself?” says Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in a New York Times op-doc called What if He Falls?. Photographer Mikey Schaefer, a close friend of Honnold, also expresses his fear of working on this project. During Honnold’s climb, Schaefer films him from the ground. His fear is conveyed as he shakes his head and says, “I can’t believe you guys are actually going to watch,” as Honnold reaches the most difficult part of the climb—a section he struggled with while practicing with ropes. The danger and tension are perfectly captured in Free Solo, and the breathtaking shots leave audience members on the edge of their seats.
Excellent reviews and cult followings of this film aside, Free Solo is worth seeing no matter who you are or what your interests are. The story is one of profound human emotion, risk, and growth. Honnold is doing something almost superhuman, and the risk and fear that comes with it are overpowering. "There's no margin for error. Imagine an Olympic-gold-medal-level athletic achievement that if you don't get that gold medal, you're going to die," says Tommy Caldwell, a friend and fellow climber of Honnold’s. "That's pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly."
The film ends with a final, hopeful interview of Honnold. “Right now there’s some kid that just read about El Cap being soloed and he’s like, ‘What’s bigger?’ And I mean somebody’s going to think of something and it’s going to be cooler. But I don’t know if that will be me. Maybe, I don’t know.” This movie is daring, dangerous, and dizzying, and unlike an over-the-top celebration of Honnold’s desire to live life on the edge, Free Solo examines the personal, intimate, and vulnerable side to a seemingly robotic person like Honnold.