I’m not a big fan of poker (and as a rule, I dislike gambling in general), but every once in a while, I’ll play penny ante games with friends. The very few occasions when I’ve been involved in impromptu games “just for fun,” because none of us happened to have the cash on hand to give real value to the chips we were using, I lost interest almost immediately. Without the consequences of winning or losing real money, it’s not any fun. You’re just throwing around chips without any thought behind it.
Alex Honnold, arguably the greatest rock climber of all time, seems to hold the same view about his vocation and obsession, but the stakes in this game are his life. Honnold is most famous for his free-solo climbs. These are climbs made with no safety equipment. No ropes. No harness. There are only two possible outcomes to each of Honnold’s stunning free-solo ascents: perfection or death.
In Free Solo, husband-and-wife directing team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin capture Honnold’s confrontation of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, described in the film as “the center of the rock-climbing universe.” Their documentary is an absolute wonder. It chronicles Honnold’s turmoil as he contemplates free-soloing the 3200 feet of sheer granite, a feat never achieved by any other climber. We also get a view into Honnold’s personal life and philosophy. Free Solo, like other great documentaries, leaves us with the feeling that we have a new and unique insight into the person it’s examining. The National Geographic production is also filled with stunning nature photography and a climax that is as harrowing and spellbinding as anything you’ll see in the best Hollywood action movie.
To understand why he takes the risks that he does, Free Solo digs into the climber’s family life, his personal beliefs, and even his brain activity. Like many men (myself included), he has trouble expressing his emotions. This is put in stark relief by his girlfriend, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless. This pairing is a relatively new thing for Honnold. Before Sanni came along, his singular passion didn’t afford him the time for a serious relationship. Despite having what he describes as a “fair amount” of money, something on par with a successful dentist, he says, the climber lived out of his van for nine years. This was a purely utilitarian choice; living with minimal possessions and on wheels optimized getting to the next climb and tracking the weather conditions for each one.
The movie spends time documenting Sanni’s frustration not only in getting Honnold to open up to her, but also her struggle to understand his obsession. If there’s a criticism of the film I can offer, it’s that Free Solo comes dangerously close (though never fully) to painting Sanni as the woman who comes into Honnold’s life as a disrupting force, distracting the great man from achieving great things. Not an experienced climber, Sanni caused Honnold to suffer a major injury through inattention to safety gear when he took her on a climb. Another injury, a sprained ankle, gives him pause in the movie. He wonders aloud if the distraction of a girlfriend is making him lose his focus.
What balances that out are the other people in Honnold’s life. Other climbers, like his good friend Tommy Caldwell, have families of their own. This shifts your priorities, especially when what you do for a living could cost you your life. So, when Caldwell says that he’s spent 20 years climbing El Capitan – El Cap, to the initiated – but he would never do it without a rope, we wonder if Sanni being in Honnold’s life will cause him to come to the same realization.
It’s not likely, considering how he talks about his pursuit of perfection. The feeling of being perfect, if even for a short while, is too intoxicating. Free-soloing is the closest thing to perfection there is, Honnold tells us. You must be perfect in each move. It’s like an Olympic event, he says, where the only outcomes are a gold medal or death.
What causes this mentality? Was it his mother, who demanded excellence of Alex from a young age? An MRI taken during the film shows his amygdala – the part of the brain that registers emotions like fear and anxiety – as having unusually low activity. Is that the cause of his risk-taking behavior? Perhaps it was his father’s death when Alex was young. Most probably it was a combination of all these things plus others.
Added to these fascinating questions is the very act of a film crew attempting to capture Honnold’s possible ascent of El Cap. During the course of Free Solo, it becomes a movie about movies. One of the directors, Jimmy Chin, is known in his own right for being a climber and mountaineer. Not only has he successfully climbed Mt. Everest, but he has also skied down it from the summit. Chin and Honnold are good friends, and they have teamed up on several rock-climbing expeditions. Chin must confront the very real possibility of capturing his friend’s death on film. This becomes an even bigger concern when Honnold bails on a free-solo attempt of El Cap because the pressure of everyone watching him breaks his concentration.
The visceral thrills of Free Solo are absolutely exhilarating. Chin and Vasarhelyi take care to never make those of us who are unfamiliar with rock-climbing lingo feel lost or frustrated. Their team of camera operators get exquisite detail as Honnold “practices” a free-solo of El Cap using a full complement of safety equipment. We learn – with utter astonishment – how incomprehensibly tiny the hand and foot holds are that he must rely on to make his way up the granite wall. The centimeters-deep depressions – literal nooks and crannies – that Honnold digs his finger tips and shoes into must be seen to be believed.
The route has several distinct sections, each one called a pitch, and the one named Boulder Problem has two possible solutions. There is a sizable drop between two sections of the wall, and Honnold must navigate it to continue onward. He can perform a “karate kick,” meaning he extends his leg out over the drop to the other side, causing his back side to extend away from the wall. When wearing safety gear, the ropes pull him back toward the rock. In a free-solo, one false move means his center of gravity, which is extended over the void, will cause him to plummet to his death. The other option seems even crazier, if that’s imaginable. It’s called a “double dyno,” short for double dynamic move. It would require him to simultaneously extend both feet from their position to move over the drop and onto the rock on the other side. In case you missed it, what I just described is the act of jumping completely off the wall to land on the other side.
This mixture of adventure and danger with a contemplative portrait of a man who risks everything in the pursuit of his goals is what makes Free Solo essential viewing. It chronicles Honnold’s uncompromising quest for perfection and is a testament to feats of human athleticism and determination.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- No reason for qualifiers here. This isn’t just one of the best documentaries of the year. It isn’t one of the best sports films of the year. Nor is it just one of the best nature films of the year. Free Solo is one of the best films of the year. Full stop. Chin and Vasarhelyi’s film is probing and incisive on myriad topics like determination, success, failure, and even human connection.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The very first shot of the film, an overhead crane shot of Honnold making an ascent, gave me chills. The photography throughout the film is awe-inspiring.
- One of the reasons Honnold gives for not letting the fear of dying on a climb hold him back: “Conceivably, anyone could die on any given day.”
- One of the many facets to this guy that the movie is only able to touch on his is charity work. He seems like a genuinely compassionate, caring human being.
- Honnold describes part of the reason for his free-soloing as being “the bottomless pit of self-loathing.” This feeling compels him to try to achieve great feats. I’m not suggesting I’m doing anything great by writing about movies, but I do know the feeling he’s describing, particularly when it comes to assessing my own skill and talent at writing about film. After I’ve finished almost every review, I usually have the feeling that it’s inadequate, lacking. But I continue to do it because to not even try would be worse.
- I’m a big proponent of emphasizing the personal experience I have with a movie over intellectualizing it (although that has its place, too). This movie spoke to me in a way no other movie has in a few years now, probably since 2014’s Wild. I have a dream of some day completing one of the three big thru-hikes (PCT, AT, or Continental Divide Trail), and, while it would be no where near what Honnold has achieved, I can relate to his passion for athletic endurance and communing with nature.
- Another personal hook for me – one the movie doesn’t cover, but that I learned about in my research for the review – is that Honnold is an atheist, as am I. Again, the movie makes no mention of it, but it was nice to see Honnold’s triumphs, his acts of charity and kindness, and to hear his philosophy on life without him ever crediting an invisible higher power for any of it. He is good for its own sake, and he’s good without God. It’s powerful to see that on screen.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I hope people discover this movie. The crowd I saw it with was small to medium. The theater was a little less than half full. The box office so far has been promising, and it looks like Free Solo will wind up on a lot of critic’s year-end best-of lists. Hopefully it will also win some awards, which will raise its awareness factor even higher.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I’ve been a fan of Drew Goddard for over a decade now, even if I wasn’t aware of his name. The writer/director/producer wrote for the television series Lost, and his film work includes writing Cloverfield, adapting The Martian for the screen, and both writing and directing what has become a minor cult hit: The Cabin in the Woods. He has a new movie out called Bad Times at the El Royale. The trailer promises twists and turns galore in this thriller set in the late ‘60s at a mysterious hotel on the California/Nevada border.