Alex Honnold, a 33-year-old free climber who scales the world’s tallest rock faces without rope or harness or anything else that might keep him from plummeting to an inconceivably awful demise, doesn’t have trouble justifying what he does for a living. “Anyone can conceivably die on any given day,” he said. He’s not wrong. But, on any given day, Honnold makes sure that he has a much higher chance of dying than the rest of us. On some June or July mornings, before most people are awake, Honnold has already climbed thousands of feet in the air and entrusted his existence to a bump of granite the size of his big toe.
It’s hard to imagine why someone would choose to do that, but certain men have always looked at the world as something to conquer, and feel personally taunted by the impossible. That’s how we got everything from the Myth of Icarus to the cinema of Werner Herzog. But what makes Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” such a fresh and uncommonly textured portrait is that the film isn’t content to just marvel at Honnold’s audacity. It also grapples with the desire to cure him of it. As this breathless and profoundly stressful documentary follows Honnold’s multi-year attempt to be the first person to ever climb El Capitan with his bare hands, the question of “why” is painfully answered by all of the reasons why not.
“Free Solo” thaws into a riveting character study during its second half, but the film is first and foremost a peerlessly visceral depiction of what it’s like to scale a 3,000-foot rock. This movie is as close as most people will ever want to get to free climbing anything higher than a ladder — maybe even closer. Chin and Vasarhelyi, whose 2015 “Meru” proved their bonafides as documentary filmmakers and exceptional mountaineers in their own right, capture Honnold’s training process from every conceivable angle. Not only is “Free Solo” the reason why God invented drones, but the fact that the directors were tethered right beside or below their subject allows for a stomach-churning degree of “you are there” reality. A GoPro couldn’t hope to match the queasy nuance of a manually controlled camera operated by one of Honnold’s oldest friends.
And Honnold is a fascinating study — there’s a lot to see by looking at him through a properly focused lens. A lanky, overgrown boy with an ignored mess of dark hair and a long torso that gives him the reach of an Olympic swimmer, Honnold might as well be the twin brother who Michael Phelps never had; only his sunken expression really sets them apart, as though Honnold has spent too much time staring death in the face. He lives in a van, feeding himself with the substantial profits from his recent memoir, and he speaks in a monotone that he may have inherited from his late father (who had Asperger’s). Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that his brain’s fear centers are basically numb, as we learn from the scene where he gets an MRI.
All told, Honnold seems like a pretty nice guy. The intimate moments of him cooking a bean stew or driving around Yosemite during the pre-dawn hours feel like an intrusion on some kind of sacred warrior ritual, but the fact that Honnold invited Chin and Vasarhelyi to film them allows us to intuit a real, humanizing friendship between the climber and the crew. And “Free Solo” is smart to point behind the camera and feed off the genuine concern these directors have for their subject (Chin often appears onscreen), because the mountain footage — however incredible it might be — is only half of the story.
Again, there’s nothing new about a thrill-seeker with a shrunken amygdala, and initially it’s unclear if anyone involved in the making of this movie had the perspective to realize that. But they do, and it’s because of the filmmakers’ love for their subject, not in spite of it. “Free Solo” is at its best when it switches its focus from Honnold’s hold on the world, to the world’s hold on him.
The primary engine of that transition is unquestionably Honnold’s spirited and caring new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. The film spends ample time detailing the unique bond that forms between fellow climbers (and the hole their seemingly inevitable deaths leave behind), but the uneasy love that grows between Honnold and McCandless is different — it hinges on a mutual commitment that one of them can’t meet.
Honnold cares for her, but he’s also very open about his belief that contentment is antithetical to the greatness that he’s chasing. That he’ll probably always be chasing until the day he makes a single mistake. It’s in his nature, as set in stone as El Capitan itself, and buying a cute house together in a flat Las Vegas neighborhood isn’t going to change that. McCandless is a whip-smart and intuitive woman, and she knows what she’s getting herself into with this guy, but the risks aren’t enough to keep her from trying. On that level, she and Honnold understand each other. All the same, the moment where she bids him goodnight on the eve of his El Capitan summit attempt is as hard to watch as the footage of the climb itself (a climb so harrowing that one of the filmmakers can’t even bring himself to follow it through his camera’s viewfinder).
Any number of films have wrestled with the price of genius, and the traumatic costs that people have to pay in order for some man to pursue his idea of perfection, but “Free Solo” is so absorbing because it strives for even a tenuous grip on the balance between love and need. Maybe nobody can hold on to that for long, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother to reach for it? It’s an open question that Chin and Vasarhelyi would never try to answer for anyone but themselves, but there’s no denying that the domestic scenes of “Free Solo” are more powerful because you appreciate the madness of what Honnold is trying to do, and the climbing scenes are more powerful because you appreciate the full extent of what he’s risking to do it. Even without a rope or a harness, nobody is ever really going it alone.
“Free Solo” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. National Geographic will release the film this fall.