Spoiler alert! Rock climber Alex Honnold is still alive. If you have any issues with heights, I’m not sure that will make viewing the documentary about his free solo climbing El Capitan, a 3,000-foot ascent, any less stressful. I spent a lot of time watching this movie thinking this guy was genuinely insane.
Although in one scene Honnold gets an MRI whose greatest insight is that it takes a lot more than it does most people to scare him, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi don’t delve a whole lot into the psychology behind Honnold’s motivations. Given his inability to get scared by much, the idea that he’s a “thrill seeker” isn’t quite right. It might be more accurate to say he has an obsessive personality. He notes on camera that multiple ex-girlfriends have theorized he must have one mental disorder or another.
And what of the film crew itself? Many of these are people who regard themselves as friends of Alex Honnold, who are also professional rock climbers, and are waited with baited breath — not to mention previously placed cameras on the rock face — to capture this unprecedented achievement. There is some footage of these individuals contemplating the very real possibility that not only could they see their friend plummet to his death, but they would also be filming it. I did find myself wondering, if Honnold had died in this attempt, would they still have made this film? What would they have done with all this footage? Who would even come to see something so tragic, and preventably so?
Predictably the actual free solo climb itself comes rather late in the 100-minute run time of this film, and it’s edited down to maybe five minutes, the climactic sequence the entire film builds p to. And indeed, there is a huge difference between all the practice runs Honnold and his friends do with secured ropes, and the free solo run. For those few minutes, my heart was in my throat. The same was the case for much of the film crew, who are turned into characters in this story themselves. One camera man, stationed behind a camera on the ground looking up at Honnold, has to turn away and refuses to watch, multiple times. I likewise covered my eyes more than once.
Here is one example where video drones prove to be a tremendously effective and economical device. The cinematography in Free Solo is more evocative than anything, edited between the aforementioned ground cameras, the drone, and other climbers holding strategic positions along Honnold’s predetermined climbing route.
Somewhat curiously, Alex Honnold finds the rare steady girlfriend during the filming, and the added romance in his life throws him off his game a tad, getting injured twice in the space of a month. It’s almost like it’s added to goose the drama, although it does feel authentic. And it adds yet another layer to what’s at stake when it comes to the risks Honnold makes, a stark contrast to when he really has to be only concerned with himself on solo climbs with no emotional attachments to the ground below.
Is Free Solo something I would call enjoyable, though? Honestly I found it more stressful than anything, although once Honnold’s insanely lofty goal is met, there is a palpable sense of emotion and maybe even catharsis. Seeing this movie in a movie theatre is certainly a double-edged sword. It might completely freak you out, but to get the full effect of the stress you must see it on the big screen! This film is perhaps made more for those interested in extreme sports than your average movie-goer.