For those fortunate enough to see 2015’s mountain-climbing documentary Meru, you witnessed a prime example of high-stakes risk sports that seemed as unprecedented as it was majestic and serene. That film’s co-directors (and husband-and-wife team) Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi return with a much scarier but no less fascinating work, Free Solo, about climber Alex Honnold, one of the world’s leading free soloists—meaning he ascends excessively tall rock faces with no ropes or any other safety equipment. One slip, one mistake, and he’s likely dead. The documentary is a chronicle of Honnold’s preparation, training and eventual climb up the world’s most famous rock, the 3200-ft. El Capitan in Yosemite National Park—a formation that no free soloist has even attempted, let alone made to the top.
The actual climb only takes up about 20 minutes of the film, but it’s one of the most terrifying 20 minutes you’ll ever experience that doesn’t involve something designed to scare you. Your eyes scan every inch of the surface that Honnold is climbing, looking for the tiniest crack or indentation where he might secure his fingers or feet, and you wonder how he sees what you likely won’t. But it’s the preparation to the climb where the film’s built-in tension begins to build as fellow climbers, Honnold’s patient girlfriend Sanni, and even the film crew allow the stress of the impending event permeate every frame, all of which Honnold must will himself to ignore so that he can climb worry free.
Honnold is often accused of being a bit cold and insensitive, and certainly there are moments with Sanni where this seems especially true, but a lifetime of climbing has made him realize that he must remove worries or even what he risks losing if he falls in order to ascend in the proper state of mind. There comes a certain point in the movie where even the audience will begin to resent anyone who brings emotion into his world prior to the climb. Since a great deal of free soloing is about being completely alone, there even comes a point where Honnold questions whether the cameras are too much of a distraction. He doesn’t want the crew, all of whom are his friends, to have to chronicle his death, if that should happen. But they quickly come up with a compromise: the camera people will stay out of his eyeline for the majority of the event.
It’s remarkable to watch Honnold’s intense and detail-oriented preparation. He has effectively memorized every hand and foot placement and movement before making the journey. Using ropes during the training and consulting other expert climbers, he masters El Cap one section—or pitch—at a time and brings it all together. But when different pitches are named things like “Monster Offwidth” or “The Boulder Problem,” how much can you truly master anything up there? While we are able to anticipate some of the most treacherous sections of the climb because of the training footage, director Chin (who supervises the climbing portion of the filming) cleverly saves some the most dangerous elements for the climb portion of the movie.
There’s an attempt to enter the psychology of the people who free solo. Are they thrill seekers? Secretly suicidal? Emotionally stunted? Honnold even has an MRI done to determine if his brain is different than most people, and it turns out he requires a higher level of stimulation to activate portions of his brain. In the end, he turns out to be a man who happens to have a great deal of control over his mind and body, and succeeding at this succeed-or-die feat brings him a great deal of joy, not simple thrills. We see him experience some personal growth, to the point where he wonders if this will be his last major, risky free solo climb. In the end, it feels like a privilege to be a part of his process and experience even a fraction of his journey…from the relative comfort and safety of our seat. By the way: if you even contemplate watching this film on anything other than the biggest screen you have access to, you’re a fool. If Honnold teaches us nothing else, it’s do it big or don’t do it at all.
The film opens today around Chicago, including the Music Box Theatre, where director Jimmy Chin and climber/subject Alex Honnold will take part in a post-screening Q&A on Thursday, Oct. 18, after the 9:45pm showing. Chin will also be on hand on Friday, Oct. 19, after the 7pm and 9:45pm showtimes.
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