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FREE SOLO (2018) review

October 19, 2018

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produced by: Jimmy Chin, Shannon Dill, Evan Hayes & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi 
rated: not rated
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: September 28, 2018 (NY/LA) & October 19, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL) 

 

I continue to be enthralled and impressed with professional climbers, as much as I am with guitar virtuosos. Both are talents I wish I had. Obviously, the two talents require a different kinds of skill sets, not to mention another kind of mentality and strength altogether, but the admiration is there for both, nonetheless. The more climbing documentaries I watch – and there’s a lot of them – the more in awe I am of the subjects they follow, but my respect has increased for the filmmakers involved in capturing these climbers as they tell their stories. “Free Solo” may only be the second documentary focused on climbing from married couple Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi after 2015’s “Meru“, but the two filmmakers have developed an impressive and amazing  approach that offers viewers an immersion like nothing else out there. 

This kind of immersion – where cameras are up close, thousands of feet up in the air alongside a focused climber – often puts viewers whisper distance from the subject, who is embarking on accomplishing an unsurmountable feat that demands physical dexterity and a mental and emotional perseverance like no other. Such an immersive approach also knows when to pan out and share the majestic scope and awesome beauty of the environment that surrounds the subject.

 

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The subject here is big wall free soloist climber Alex Honnold.  On June 3, 2017, the California-born Honnold became the first person ever to scale the granite wall of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, a 3,200-foot ascent accomplished in 3 hours and 58 minutes. Honnold did this without any rope and without such a safety system means that a fall could’ve been fatal. That being said, this feat is obviously something Honnold has been training for for years, eight to be exact. Still, what kind of decisions does one make in order to arrive at such a daunting endeavor? Better yet, what kind of decisions does a filmmaker have to make in order to agree to film a potentially fatal event?

Such questions and many more will be asked while watching “Free Solo”, which becomes a candid look at who Honnold is, not just what he does here. What he is goes beyond courage, skill and fearlessness, since Honnold has all that and has learned to hone them all to perfection. He is essentially an unusual and uniquely made human being, someone like no other climber, which is something that more than one professional climber admits to in this documentary. While Chin and Vasarhelyi capture the actual climb on film – which made me sick during more than one scene – they also provide us with a portrait of Honnold, which is important to our investment in the climber and the film itself.

 

Honnold isn’t in it for the fame or notoriety. This is a guy who, for most of the film, lives in a van (a 2002 Ford Econoline E150, to be specific) by himself, providing him with the ability to go from one climbing destination to the next. It’s a pretty cool van, actually, one he can cook, shower and sleep in, but it’s still living out of a vehicle nonetheless. To maintain an optimal body and mind, he’s opted to go caffeine and alcohol free with a vegetarian diet. He discovered climbing as a young child at an indoor climbing gym and never stopped from there, earning all kinds of related accolades and rewards. Reflecting on his childhood and youth, the now 33-year-old Honnold, describes himself as a “loner” and a “dork”, admitting his focus on the solitary act of climbing kept him from social settings that would require him to connect with others, which is quite possibly a subconscious decision considering what we learn of his home environment growing up.

 

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Yes, he makes a living as a professional climber, supported by various sponsors, but all that does is enable him to do something he’s passionate about and extremely good at full time. There’s a scene where he’s speaking in front of a group of high school students in which he addresses a question about how much money he has (a question only a high school student would ask), to which Honnold answers by saying his various endorsements make him comparable to a well-paid dentist. The film reinforces his attitude toward by money by including the fact that Honnold has created a nonprofit company that provides solar energy to impoverished areas of the world, with the hope of  promoting it to the developed world. I mention and include all of this simply because of my own curiosity of the life of a full-time climber, let alone someone who has received fame doing it.

During his meticulous planning and preparation for his big climb, Honnold meets Sanni McCandless at a book-signing in Seattle. They hit it off, which leads to Honnold’s first sustainable relationship with a girlfriend and McCandless becomes someone he can share his climbing experiences with. We get the impression that this relationship could provide even more fulfillment (or at least a different kind) than what he has, ye we also get the feeling that might scare him. If anything, it becomes clear that Honnold taking McCandless on his climbing excursions (with ropes, of course) starts to throw him off a bit, since he’s used to working alone and he’s now concerned about her safety as well. This comes to a head when he’s injured after taking a 30-foot fall during one of their climbs together. Up until then, Honnold had remained injury free.  Love hurts, indeed.

It’s interesting to see a different side of Honnold as he and McCandless navigate their far-from-ordinary relationship. She has to come to terms with the perceivable risk he takes with each free solo climb and he has to figure out how best to balance his climbing aspirations with this newly formed love life. Her worries are certainly not unfounded. Honnold’s good friend and fellow professional climber, Tommy Caldwell, expresses his own concerns throughout the film, at one point reminding Alex that, “everybody who has made soloing a big part of their life…is dead now.” McCandless and Caldwell are two people who love Honnold, so seeing him make this commitment is hard, but at the same time they know what it means to him.

 

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Which makes one wonder, what exactly Honnold is concerned with. He is aware that the people he’s close to are concerned for him, but there is also a noticeable wall that Honnold has subconsciously built over the years, one that looks at his potential death as a matter-of-fact next step inevitability. He may be planning out every angle to prevent his demise, but he is acutely aware of such an outcome in a manner can be described as anything but emotional. Maybe that’s concerning, but maybe that’s why he’s so good at what he does.

Some of Honnold’s internal makeup could be explained during a scene where he agrees to submit to an MRI scan of his brain. That results reveal that his amygdala – the portion of the brain responsible for the fear impulse – doesn’t show very much activity. It’s as if he never had to begin with or he’s trained that area of his mind to work in alignment with his mission, like a bodybuilder developing specific muscle groups. It’s one of the only scenes that plays out like it was intentionally designed to be shot specifically for a documentary, rather than just capture Honnold’s life, but that never makes it any less fascinating. It also may serve as an explanation over his supposed mastery over fear.

“Free Solo” is a dazzling and dizzying thing to behold. I simply can’t imagine experiencing it firsthand as a filmmaker and then on top of that not only being the director of such a daunting project, but also possibly witnessing the possible death of your friend. Chin is an accomplished climber and mountaineer in his own right, but the stress of such a project must be nerve-wracking, if not overwhelming. The last thirty or forty minutes of the film is really hard to watch. My toes and fingers were sweating and I felt restless while watching the actual free solo climb up El Cap, so I can’t even imagine what Chin and his camera crew up on the wall with Honnold were going through.

“Free Solo” is gripping and astonishing on its own, but the swelling music from veteran composer Marco Beltrami adds on the tension. At times, such a score is unnecessary. Just hearing Honnold’s breathing adds enough to the overwhelming suspense of the climb. At one point, we hear an admirer state, “Alex is having the best day of his life”, followed by a friend stating, “Not me. I’m done. I can’t watch anymore.” That’s a statement I can completely understand.

The whole time watching I had to reassure myself that Honnold makes it out alive. Why else would such a documentary have been made? Indeed, when Honnold finally makes it to the top, a wave of relief is felt. “Good work not plummeting to your death,” we can hear Caldwell say to Honnold on the phone, “I’m glad it’s over.” So are we.

Just before the end credits roll, there’s an “In Loving Memory” acknowledgment for Frank Taiping Chin, Ann Krcik and Ueli Steck and then we hear Tim McGraw’s song, “Gravity”, which has the repeated line, “Gravity is a fragile thing”. For people like Alex Honnold, indeed it is. Yet, what “Free Solo” shows is that there’s no one like Honnold. He’s set apart from other professional climbers and indeed everyone else. We may not be able to comprehend or understand him, but it’s inconceivable to not respect what he’s accomplished.

Forget “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”, as far as the most thrilling, nail-biting, on-the-edge-of-your-seat-action thrillers, “Free Solo” is it this year. What Chin and Vasarhelyi have filmed is beyond impressive and what Honnold has accomplished is unfathomable. I’m getting chills just thinking about what I watched and it’s still unbelievably baffling to conceive that this is a true thing that happened.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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