“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