It’s been a great year for climbing films. Where The Dawn Wall left off, with climbing megastars Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free climbing the previously unclimbed route of El Capitan in Yosemite, Free Solo carries on with fellow megastar Alex Honnold. Only, this time they’ve left the ropes at home. The results are tantalizing and terrifying; while both films will leave big screen viewers with sweaty palms, fingers tight as if you too are attempting to grip the most minute of rock ledges with your very life at stake, the later actually brings the taste of bile to the mouth.
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Release Date: September 28, 2018
At its heart, Free Solo is almost a biopic. The tale of a man climbing a rock — even an extraordinary man climbing an extraordinary rock, the extraordinary rock according to the climbing world — is captivating, but a good story requires more. Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin define the ‘more’ as the details that might comprise the life story of star Honnold. Might being the operative word. They attempt to provide Honnold’s motivations through details of his upbringing. From a hard father who didn’t use the word love (and who may have been on the spectrum), to an exacting mother who believed that anything less than perfect wasn’t good enough, the directors try to provide motivations for Honnold’s habit of climbing the most difficult climbs on the planet, literally without a safety net.
Yet, they also admit they don’t really understand him or what makes him tick; they’re only guessing, swatting at logic flies and hoping they manage to kill the right one. Outside of the presence of or absence of ropes, motivation may be the biggest differentiator between the two films. Both feature men driven to do the impossible far beyond the motivation of other men, but The Dawn Wall set Caldwell’s own obsession with El Capitan as something born from earlier traumas in life, something that set in him a grim determination to live as only clinging to the side of the largest granite slab on earth can allow, and doing so in a way no one else has ever done.
Honnold, too, seems to admit that he lives like he can’t otherwise while in these situations, likening himself to a warrior that must follow his path because it’s been chosen for him. Only, it hasn’t. He has choice, despite compulsion, to do as he wants and how he wants. And what he wants is to do what other people (only a handful) do with ropes, without them, placing himself at the edge of life and death, and quite possibly, forcing his best performance from himself every time he attempts his next feat.
There’s heavy emphasis, in fact, on how unlike other people Honnold can be, not only from his own words, but from the interpretation of his actions from others. He’s unfathomable, much like the feats he attempts. At one point, he admits that he realized other people were sort of into hugging and continues that around age 23 he had to teach himself how to hug. It’s almost like hearing testimony from a serial killer who realizes that he must adopt certain human behaviors in order to blend in and be accepted by the rest of the human race. Obviously, he’s not really: he only slays mountainsides.
What’s perhaps most incredible about the film though, is not the result—no, that’s purely the most breathtaking, nauseating, and eye-widening—it’s the journey: the exactitude that leads to master-level-craftsmanship. It’s the Gladwelllian 10,000 hour ethos unfolding in front of your eyes. The practice, repetition, preparation, calculation and mental fortification that Honnold endures prior to the undertaking surpass daunting. It’s nearly incalculable. It makes sense, with anything less, and you’d be watching a different film with a less happy ending, a fact that the narrative reiterates at every turn.
Everyone involved in the making of the documentary, from Honnold’s girlfriend, to fellow climbers helping him prepare or just offering advice, to the filmmakers themselves, are aware of the omnipresent sense of mortality. Only Honnold seems unaffected, but for one moment of hesitation that leads to another round of exercises. The film is also a monument to the other free soloists who sought the edge and found it too soon. Their names and likenesses and bookended epitaph dates a reminder of just how real this is.
This is life and death. This is living and living. This is manifest destiny or destiny manifest, take your pick. But in either case, see the film on a screen that does it justice (as big as possible). Then, if you use Instagram, do yourself another favor and follow co-director Jimmy Chin’s feed for incredible photography from some of the world’s remotest location. It was perhaps one of the film’s only shortcomings—the lack of some of that aesthetic applied to establishing shots of Yosemite. It may have been intentional, a choice, instead, to focus on the man and the accomplishment—that feat and the scale achieved on, grand enough to stand in broad daylight glory.