Sorry nerds, Free Solo isn’t the opening act of Return of the Jedi. (yes I recycled this joke) Free Solo is a documentary produced by “National Geographic” and directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (the pair who made another climbing documentary Meru three years ago) about Alex Honnold free solo climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Alex’s astounding climb is the main focus, riveting and dizzying. But with ninety minutes, just following only the climb would lose focus of many viewers. While the climb is the reason to get our butt in (and soon to the edge of) the seat, what makes Free Solo a great documentary is the wider focus on Honnold as he leads to the climb; exploring the person who could do such an feat.
First, for the non-climbers like me. What does it meant to free solo? Alex’s amazing feat is to climb alone, without any sort of safety gear. There is nothing to keep Alex from falling outside of his fingers and feet. “Ah ha ha”, you say, “if he’s alone, how do we see him do it? … fake!” Well, my friends, thanks to drones, pre-placed cameras, and zoomed in rigs on the grounds, we can live through his climb without causing a distraction. Because when you’re nearly 3000 feet in the air holding onto a sheer rock wall through inch deep foot and hand holds, you need no distraction. Oh boy, it is harrowing to watch Alex. Put aside Heriditary, Annihliation, and Halloween; this year’s biggest tension is watching a guy climb a mountain. Due to being known for this act from various appearances, articles and appearances (I met him at the Seattle premiere myself), we know he survives the ordeal but one still can’t help but wince and groan at every perilous move. We feel the same as the camera crew watching him climb; the different of course is they are watching him live. There is a solid fear for them that they may watch their friend plummet to his death at a misstep. From the shots of the those making the other shots, the worry on their faces are reminders of the real danger; we’re watching a movie with the comfort of a screen between us and Alex, they are there unknowning of the success. Luckily as professionals, they hold true to their job and get their shots, as emotionally painful as they may be. The crew gains breathtaking views. Every shot looking down at Alex and the far, far away ground sends one’s insides into the mouth and fingernails into the seat cushion. The danger is felt. To bring this point home and ground the thrill, there is a montage of other climbers who have attempted climbs and lost their lives.
With so many deaths, with one’s own life on the line, what would make a person want to do an act like free climbing El Capitan and a …range (pun!) of other peaks? An intense drive for thrill? A lack of fear? For the last question, forget Daredevil; Alex is truly a man without fear. In the sequences leading up to the climb, Alex has an MRI performed that shows no activity in the fear centers of his brain. It just doesn’t register. Since he doesn’t fear the fall, he’ll leave the pants shitting for the audience! In exploring Alex and his lifestyle, we see an interesting character study. It’s like there are two Alexes. His fear center is missing, but there are other parts of him that aren’t’ quite there. On the ground, he’s often aloof, gazing into the middle distance, unsure how to react to other people. It’s easy to see climbing is in his heart, looking out to the next; usually living out of his van in order to get to the next height. (I am reminded of another fantastic climbing documentary Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckley. I saw it at SIFF last year, about the man who performed the first ascents for dozens of peaks on the West Coast, living out of his car for decades until his death at 94 last year)Seek that out to if you really want to get into the headspace). In the focus on his love life, it’s easy to see that he and girlfriend Sanni really care for each other, but we feel frustrated as we can see the cues she’s putting out that he’s not picking up on. Luckily, they do have frank conversations about it rather than stewing and simmering and for his credit, Alex tries. Hell, one thing she said she loves about him is his unvarnished honesty, for better or worse. However, Alex on the mountain, whether it be El Capitan, which we see him and the crew climb a dozen or so times to get the route down, or the others filmed and referenced, is a different person. He’s in his element: focused and confident. He’s like a robot, programmed to climb, mechanical and precise. He’s as comfortable hugging a cliff wall at 2500 feet as we are wincing at it.
I’m not a climber, and you aren’t likely one too. The most I “climb” are easy to moderate trail climbs in the mountains out of Seattle on a lazy Saturday. In high school, in my Boy Scout Days, I did a few days on the Appalachian Trail. So, this isn’t my culture but damned if Free Solo doesn’t draw you in and almost you want to go.
See Free Solo soon and as big as you can to live in the climb.