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Film Review: Free Solo

Free Solo (2018; Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. No matter how little one may know or comprehend about the chosen athletic discipline, marginal and niche-ish as it may be, it is possible from the filmed document to recognize the tremendous expertise, skill, effort, and mental focus required to do what none believed to be possible to achieve nor even remotely advisable to try, and, furthermore, why the document’s subject was the one to achieve it.

Free Solo is that document, Alex Honnold is that subject, and his free solo climb (ie. ascension alone, without the support of ropes, harnesses, other climbers, or any safety equipment whatsoever) of the iconic 3,000-foot granite rock face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park is that achievement. Had Free Solo‘s directors, married couple and climbing film vets Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, simply filmed Honnold’s incredible climb (though even that wouldn’t have been simple in any way, in technical terms), this would be a remarkable film. But Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes.

Honnold performed his climb in June of 2017 (and if you think that knowing that he survives and succeeds spoils the vertiginous tension of his climactic assault on El Cap in the film, you would not be correct). Before showing us the fateful climb itself, Free Solo details Honnold’s preparations, his rope-assisted practice climbs, his injuries and false-start tribulations, his personal history and predilections, and his relationships. His girlfriend Sanni, his friend and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell (who has free-climbed alternate routes on El Cap in tandem with other climbers, including with Honnold earlier this year), and his acquaintances in Chin’s film crew all speak about the mortal danger attending free solo climbing, and how they all cope with the knowledge and emotional baggage of Honnold potentially falling to his death at any moment before their eyes (and lenses). For Chin and the film crew, the life-and-death stakes add a heavy new dimension to the standard wall-breaking post-modern thematic dilemma of the documentary filmmaker whose use of the camera interferes with the life of the subject. Chin and the others worry that if their climbing cameramen, remote cameras, and drones even slightly disrupt Honnold’s mental concentration or physical control, it could cost him his life.

That single-minded focus and control that Alex Honnold possesses, he tells the documentarians and other people appearing in the film, derive from his youth as a brainy loner with maladjusted, emotionally uncommunicative parents (he talks revealingly about how he had to teach himself to hug at age 23 or so). Both the mental capacity to focus on the herculean task of free solo climbing sheer rock walls (which involves rehearsing, taking detailed notes on, and memorizing grips, holds, and body shifts along every inch of the climbing route) and the psychological contortions required to compartmentalize the imminent threat of death should even the slightest thing go wrong are understood by Honnold to be essential to achieving his El Cap ascent.

But they are also personality flaws that interfere with his life and relationships when not climbing, a lifestyle which, although at his high level of the sport provides him with an income that he compares to that of “a moderately successful dentist”, involves constant travel and little in the way of settling down (he lives out of a van, and we see him eating straight out of a frying pan or a pot on a few occasions). Sanni is Honnold’s first steady girlfriend for some time, if not ever, and Free Solo is very honest in showing her struggles with his social difficulties and with the decently strong chance that he will one day die while climbing. This idea that what makes a person great at a certain sporting pursuit also renders them ill-equipped to live healthily in the real world is reminiscent of a similar contention in Bobby Fischer vs. the World (discussed in my review of the lesser fictionalized film version of his story, Pawn Sacrifice), but gives Free Solo a depth of insight that goes unlooked-for in niche extreme-sport films of this sort, and really in most documentaries in general.

But Free Solo is ultimately a spectacular, visceral document of an astounding physical feat and it never forgets that. Honnold’s climactic climb is shot from vertiginous angles gazing down past his body clinging to the rock, with thousands of feet of empty space between him and the ground (it might be a bit late in its release to make it happen, but Free Solo is the rare documentary that demands a big cinema screen). Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and anxious reaction shots from the ground heighten the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, as Honnold carefully, methodically, powerfully moves across and up the Nose of El Capitan. Especially anxious acrophobes should be warned away entirely, but even those who think themselves reasonably secure with precarious heights will find their palms growing sweaty watching Honnold work quite literally without a net. The effect is similar to that caused by the 3D simulated views over the upper edge of the World Trade Center towers in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, only Alex Honnold’s gravity-defying feat had no CG assist as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s did.

Free Solo also has some superb elements of editing and construction, making not only the larger stakes but also the specific challenges and geography of El Capitan clear and obvious even to rock climbing neophytes. It heightens what is a highly specific feat in a niche sport into something far grander by demonstrating just how it is grand. But more than anything, this film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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