The folks in the climbing community are not like regular people. They look at the face of a seemingly insurmountable cliff and see something to dominate, often at great risk. And within that community, there are are some folks who takes risks too dangerous for the mainstream. Alex Honnold, the subject of the new documentary Free Solo, is one of those people. He doesn’t just want to climb mountains; he wants climb them without the assistance of ropes, using only his hands, feet, and a handful of chalk. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, this film is about a seemingly impossible athletic feat. It treats Honnold’s goal with awe and urgency, but there is more to it than that. Chin and Vasarhelyi are keenly aware of the danger involved, so the film also serves as an exploration of obsession and risk.
You may remember Chin from the documentary Meru. In it, he and two other climbers attempt the “shark fin,” a difficult 4,000 foot wall in the Himalayas. That type of climbing is technically difficult: in order to sleep, Chin and the others would set up vertical “camps” that functioned like hammocks at high altitude. At first, Honnold’s desire to “free solo” up Yosemite Park’s El Capitan – all three thousand feet of it – seems not that ambitious. The filmmakers interview several climbers, who provide a lot of crucial context. In the climbing community, free soloing is considered so dangerous that these climbers do not tell anyone about their efforts until after they’re complete. Still, Honnold seems uniquely qualified to attempt El Capitan: he is in peak physical conditions, and in one amusing scene, we learn from an MRI that his brain lacks inhibitors that would give most people pause.
One intriguing thing about the film is how Chin is involved in Honnold’s efforts. He trains with Honnold, and leads a camera crew so that the climb can be properly documented. The collaboration of subject and filmmaker is unusual, and leads toward the film’s considerable suspense. When the climb finally happens, we’re well-prepared to watch this remarkable footage, but at the same time audiences may look away out of pure anxiety and terror. The imagery itself is awesome, with the camera sometimes leaning just over Honnold’s shoulder so you can see just how high up he is. Chin is remarkable climbing photographer, and he knows the right angles to capture the scope and stakes of those who risk their lives for this peculiar glory.
Aside from the action footage, Free Solo is a terrific character study. Honnold is a strange man: he has a flat way of speaking, and takes about the danger with job with a nonchalance that almost seems like a developmental disability. There are also some funny personality quirks, namely his disdain for creature comforts. He lives in a van, for one thing. There is another, more telling scene where we watch him make his dinner, and he eats his meal straight out of the skillet. Not only that, he also uses his spatula like a fork.
This all changes, however, when Honnold meets Sanni McCandless. They begin a relationship that becomes serious, and around this period Honnold starts to get injured during his climbs. He suggests his newfound romance is the reason for his injuries, as if relationships get in the way of his determination. In these stretches, Free Solo is ambiguous about his zeal. McCandless is not hurt, exactly, by her boyfriend’s willingness to put himself in danger. On one level, she even understands it. But we also see her frustration, and her terror does little to sway Honnold (she never appears angry at the filmmakers, who in effect are goading him on, but that’s another issue). When the climb happens, Honnold undergoes another mental ordeal. He puts his girlfriend behind him, repeating the steps required as if they are his mantra.
Free Solo does not quite have the thrills of the best mountain climbing documentaries, but that is a good thing. The best of the genre, Touching the Void, is a stomach-turner because the climbers undergo horrific injury (one of the guys subject his kneecap with this shin bone, falls down a crevasse, and somehow lives to tell about it). We know that Honnold is a success because he is there to talk about it, and because there is no movie without him climbing up El Capitan. Still, that foreknowledge does not change what Chin and Vasarhelyi accomplish. This is the rare documentary that is more terrifying than a horror movie.