Free Solo (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Free Solo is one of 2018’s best documentaries and films. See it as big as possible.
Offers sobering, fascinating insight into the mind of Alex Honnold and others like him, whose quest to do the improbable becomes their reason for living.
Every bit as intense, thrilling, and nerve-wracking as a fictionalized suspense/thriller or action movie would be, Free Solo’s final 20 minutes might be the best 20 minute sequence from any movie this year.
Warning: Though a friend of mine watched this just fine, those susceptible to vertigo or disorienting images of heights may have a problem with some of the shots in the film.
Runs the risk of some people believing that Alex Honnold is not a figure worth praising, and rather is a selfish, arrogant individual who thinks of no one else but himself. Not my take, but it was expressed to me.
With a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, you either don’t watch this because you are a contrarian, hate documentaries, or think this is just some dude climbing a rock. You’re wrong. You’re just flat out wrong.
Perhaps referring to mountain climber Alex Honnold as a madman is patently unfair. However, his fierce, almost bullish resolve in pursuing his passion for “free solo” climbing is shared in all its honest and uncompromised glory in Free Solo, an unforgettable documentary detailing Honnold’s quest to do the unthinkable…
Free solo climb El Capitan.
If you are unclear what that means, you will know soon enough and likely be speechless for a time, witnessing hints and glimpses of what you are about to see unfold before your eyes.
Free solo climbing is exactly what it appears to be - rock climbing without any ropes, harnesses, or attachments. An individual uses their hands, feet, strength, fearlessness, and bravery, to reach the top of impressive rock formations and land masses without any “assistance” whatsoever.
We learn that less than 1% of all rock climbers engage in free solo climbing, but Honnold is a little bit impish and a whole lot determined, making him a fascinating subject for a documentary.
Just past 30 years old, we spend approximately 18 months following this particular chapter of Alex’s life, a journey on the ground and eventually in the air.
He proudly lives in a van when we meet him, has done so for nine years, though he admits a shower would be nice. He’s a vegetarian. His body is taut, sinewy, and defined, and he comes off as a genuinely congenial, kind person. He also answers directly when friend, fellow climber, and co-director Jimmy Chin asks about new girlfriend Sanni. Alex indicates she’s not quite his girlfriend (yet), it’s heading in that direction, but if ever forced to make a choice between choosing a woman and choosing rock climbing, well...
I think we all can figure out how that conversation turned out
Chin, working with wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, not only gives us a portrait of Honnold on the precipice of a personal life change, but also captures his unquenchable desire to do something no one has ever done before. Free Solo begins to become about so much more than just one man’s quest to climb a mountain. We are able to dive into the psyche that goes into believing and convincing yourself that you can do the improbable, with the only real option for failure resulting in catastrophic injury or certain death.
El Capitan exists in Yosemite National Park and is an impressive monolith. Chin and Vasarhelyi need not do anything else than show it to us and all its grey-hued impressiveness. Imposing, beautiful, multi-faceted, and seductive to Alex, we understand why he has to climb it. We also see he is rather oblivious to what that decision means to those closest to him, including Sanni, who is definitely his girlfriend by the time El Capitan is upon them.
This is a powerful, heart-stopping film, difficult to watch at times even if we perceive to know how this will all turn out. Because Honnold could be that kid from the neighborhood we knew growing up, or perhaps went to school with, we instantly connect with his quirks and traits. We are happy that he and Sanni eventually move out of the van and into a home, but also recognize what Sanni sees: Alex is climbing El Capitan and she is powerless in trying to stop him.
Similar to the experience of watching Philippe Petit walk on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, the last 20 minutes of this film is astonishing. Below him, Alex’s team is an emotional wreck, filming, feeling helpless, and Sanni is in a puddle of tears, abiding by Alex’s request to leave the site prior to his climb.
Chin and Vasarhelyi place us directly on the rock with Honnold, with breathtaking visuals and almost impossible close-ups as Honnold spends weeks and months preparing his climb with ropes, diligent notes, lots of debate and discussion, and support from fellow free soloist Tommy Caldwell.
Whether Honnold succeeds or fails in his quest is almost irrelevant to the larger questions posed in Free Solo. At what point do we value our lives over our accomplishments? What defines us as men and women? Is our legacy established by what we achieve or how we treat those around us?
We may never know what Alex Honnold thinks about these particulars as he tackles El Capitan, but his radiant smile and infectious exhilaration in doing what he loves, proves inspiring all and the same.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Tommy Caldwell.
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Release Date: October 5, 2018
National Geographic Documentary Films