“If you’re seeking perfection free-soloing is as close as you can get.” That statement from 33-year-old American rock climber Alex Honnold is one of many from the documentary “Free Solo” that gets us into the head of a man who does something so terrifying and dangerous yet at the same time utterly remarkable.
For those who don’t know, free-soloing is rock climbing with no protective gear – no ropes, no harnesses, no nothing. It’s an undertaking with a margin of error next to zero. It’s something that’s easy for some to dismiss as ‘crazy’ (the movie even explores that possibility from a medical point of view). But “Free Solo” attempts to challenge that perspective by putting as much of its focus on the man who is Alex Honnold as it does his magnificent and unfathomable feats.
The film documents Honnald’s physical and mental preparation leading up to his attempt at free-soloing El Capitan, a menacing yet beautiful rock formation standing at 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park. Husband and wife co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who also did the excellent 2015 climbing doc “Meru”) follow Honnald through his excitement, trepidations, and insecurities.
Honnald grew up a loner by his own admission who was effected by his parents divorce despite noting they were both happier afterwards. What impacted him more was the death of his father who was a big supporter of his climbing. You get the sense that this pushed Honnald to challenge himself even more, often losing himself in free-soloing. It didn’t allow for many long-lasting relationships. The exception was Sanni McCandless, a self-proclaimed patient person but with self-respect. We see that tested as the El Capitan climb draws closer.
As Chin and Vasarhelyi showed in “Meru” they have a knack for capturing both the beauty and danger of the climb. Here the risk is intensified and the consequences are evident in ever stunning and at times dizzying shot. And the camera puts a heavy emphasis on the precarious nature of the climb (sometimes a foothold is on nothing more than the tiniest dent in the rock face). It’s exhilarating, terrifying and it begs to be watched on the largest screen possible.
Alex Honnald is as fascinating as he is enigmatic and soaking up his story proves to be a satisfying experience. Yet despite the amount of time we spend with him it’s hard to get into his headspace. I never had a good grasp of how he thinks and of what makes the guy tick. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe “Free Solo” isn’t trying to get us to understand Honnald. Maybe it just wants us to respect him and the daring choices he makes. But I guess I am as unsure of that as I am the man himself.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS
You’ve read my thoughts on this one and The Dawn Wall too so I’m probably getting boring repeating this but I was not as moved by Honnold’s quest as I was Tommy and Kevin’s in TDW. I’ve never been a big fan of his approach to climbing, and when his climbing gets this level of attention it makes me fear the broader audience will get this impression that this is what you do as a professional climber. Or at the very least, these are the kinds of crazy stunts you have to do to justify a climbing doc. Now that you’ve seen Free Solo, perhaps check out TDW, it’s in my view the better, more human story.
I’ll definitely check out TDW. Really interested in seeing it. I was a pretty big fan of “Meru” and it spoke to me in a way “Free-Solo” didn’t quite do.
I definitely want to see this as I heard it’s a much more realistic approach to rock climbing than one would expect from Hollywood films.
It does have a certain realism for sure. I still prefer Meru. For me it was a better mix of the awe of climbing and personal journey. This one isn’t bad though. You should give it a look.
Zero interest . I just do not get this at all . To risk your life for what , I’m sorry. Ill stop there before I get preachy about why this stuff rankles me .
I didn’t take the movie like that. I don’t think it’s glorifying or even promoting what he does. Even though the climbing sequences are harrowing, I viewed it more as a human study. He just proved to be a tough but for me to crack.
Fair enough . I have read articles on base jumpers and guys who do this . Even in those books, I found the people who do this stuff to understand their motivation to “why” they risk so much , was lacking .
This one definitely didn’t convey his mindset in a super satisfying way. Maybe they couldn’t because he is such an enigma. He’s hard to figure out. I just don’t operate in that headspace.
Alex was kind of a dick, that would be my only negative of the film though. I thought it was stunning an fascinating.
I’m actually okay with that. It would be dishonest if it didn’t convey that. I just had a hard time seeing deep enough into him to discern if he was or if it was something else. Plus it seemed a little cold. That’s all that held me back.
The scenes that showed him on the mountain face were riveting. His cold demeanor kept me caring about him fully. And the filming of the crew — maybe I’m wrong, but isn’t that a cardinal sin – to film the director? Isn’t he or she an outside force?
That’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought about. Ultimately I had a hard time getting close to the guy or into his head. If not for the stunning climbing scenes…
I think in order for him to do something like that he would have to be wired differently. The suggested that with “Asberger” and the brain test which showed his brain acting differently than “typical” ones. You would have to have extraordinary focusing capabilities to tune out death. When he does make it, at the top, he allows an “I’m very pleased”. A Spock kind of mentality.
That response was interesting. There were several like that and sometimes I had a hard time discerning if it was the way he was wired or if he was simply uncomfortable in front of the camera.
I’m reading a lot about this movie, it seems fascinating. I must check it out, thank you!
Give it a look. It’s kinda fascinating. I still wouldn’t have given it the Best Documentary Oscar, but it’s worth a look.
The highlight of the film was the actual stunt/climb and that part was absolutely breathtaking as well as heart-stopping. I was less captivated by the rest of the narrative. I suppose trying to explain the mind of someone who would risk their life in this way to someone who values their own life, is impossible.
The climb is definitely the highlight. Stunning visually and pretty nerve-racking. It’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around it.