Free Solo reaffirmed my belief that humanity can do good things. I’m just going to come out and say that! Because I can get mired in cynicism and hating everything and everyone and thinking that most of the world is terrible, and that’s all fair. But every so often a human person achieves something so wholly remarkable and so unbelievably absurd that I have to think, “Well, shit. Maybe we’re not the worst! Maybe we can do good shit too!” Free Solo took me on that ride, when I wasn’t terrified by the stuff elite climber Alex Honnold was doing without a rope. It’s some scary shit, but life-invigorating, too.
You’re probably getting this from context clues, but: Free solo climbing is just climbing. You don’t have a rope, you’re not hooked into a line, you’re not stabilized by anything but your own limbs and self control. You have a chalk bag and your shoes and your brain and your legs and your arms and if you fall, well, you fall. In that very specific lane is where Honnold has become famous — he’s sponsored by The North Face, has been profiled on 60 Minutes by Lara Logan, and was followed by The New Yorker when he climbed up the outside of a New Jersey skyscraper.
Scientists have studied his brain to see why his understanding and experience of fear is so much different from the rest of us, and he’s grown increasingly renowned for his successful climbs, in national parks like Yosemite and Zion and international locations like Patagonia, Mexico, and Morocco.
But that sort of single-minded dedication to his craft means Honnold is, well, single-minded. I mentioned in my review of First Man that director Damien Chazelle is clearly fascinated by the effort it takes to get really good at something, at the work that goes into that and the sacrifices you make, and yeah, I think he and Honnold would get along. Because Free Solo shows us the quirks and intricacies and peculiarities of Honnold, the component parts that make up this whole: He’s lived in his van for nine years. He quit school at 19 years old, after his father’s death. He says that he didn’t grow up in a family that used the word “love”; that he had to teach himself to hug people in his 20s (“That seems like something I should get into,” Honnold says, and coupled with his description of a “melancholic” childhood, you get a sense of how his early years laid the groundwork for adult difficulty with forming relationships). His existence, primarily and profoundly, is about climbing, and his mother’s high expectations from his childhood mean that he doesn’t settle for anything below perfection (“Good enough isn’t,” he remembers her saying).
So he practices, and he practices, and he practices, with one goal that has propelled him forward for nearly a decade: free soloing up El Capitan in Yosemite. It’s never been done, and filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (also a climber and mountaineer) follow him during a year or so of preparation, from 2016 to 2017. A lot is changing for Honnold in this time — he starts a serious relationship, and almost immediately afterward starts getting injured — and there’s a meta quality to all this, too: Is the production of the documentary affecting his climbing ability? Is he pushing himself too much to achieve this goal just because it’s being filmed? What do we lose in terms of authenticity when we know we’re being watched?
Free Solo has to juggle a lot, and yet Vasarhelyi and Chin are masterful in balancing these various elements to both form a nuanced portrait of Honnold and to provide audiences with an accurate portrayal of the insanity being attempted by Honnold climbing the Freerider route. Honnold’s training partner and close friend, the decorated climber Tommy Caldwell, compares his attempt with the Olympics (“If you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die”), and Chin notes “If you’re pushing the edge, eventually you find the edge”; the footage captured here makes all that clear. The Freerider route is 3,300 feet of climbing, with more than 30 distinct “pitches” or portions of the route, and Honnold positions himself on these minuscule holds and elongates his body and shimmies upward and jumps around a bend and it’s frankly astonishing. I’m already bitter that Free Solo probably won’t get a Best Cinematography nod from the Academy Awards because it absolutely deserves it. It’s worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find.
“I can’t believe you guys are actually gonna watch,” says cameraman Mikey Schaefer, one of Honnold’s friends and fellow climbers who made up Chin’s crew (huddled together, they all look like one of the most attractive, most California groups of people I’ve ever seen in my life — happy, fit, like Point Break without the robberies), and his inability to watch Honnold climb up the mountain, overcome by fear for his friend, is a reminder that what Free Solo captures is human. There’s humanity in Honnold’s admission that he’s driven by a “bottomless pit of self-loathing” and that he worries you can’t “achieve anything great because [you’re] happy and cozy”; there’s humanity in Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, asking whether he considers her when he’s climbing, and her unwieldy mixture of concern and pride for his El Capitan attempt; there’s humanity in Honnold’s mother saying she wishes he would stop free soloing but that she would never ask him to stop, wouldn’t want to take that feeling of purity away from him. “You are not controlling your fear, you are trying to stop outside of it,” Honnold says, and Free Solo captures the beauty and triumph of such an unimaginable feat.
(Oh, and can we get a similar documentary about Simone Biles next? If we’re talking exceptional athletes at the utter top of their fields, Biles is incomparable, and I would watch the hell out of that. Just putting that idea out into the universe.)
Image sources (in order of posting): Free Solo/National Geographic, Free Solo/National Geographic, Free Solo/National Geographic