‘Free Solo’ is equal parts captivating and insanity
The fall is seemingly made for scary movies and characters to invade our screens and minds. Jason, Freddy, Michael, Chucky, Jigsaw … they all thrive and live on forever at this time of year.
But sometimes it’s the real things that are the scariest. And possibly the most insane.
For your consideration, I’d like to submit free solo climber Alex Honnold for the title of “World’s Craziest Man.” Alex’s journey to be the first person to climb one of the world’s most iconic rock walls – sans rope – is detailed in the documentary, “Free Solo.”
Alex Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park, CA. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
The film follows Alex, one of the world’s most prominent climbers (with or without safety ropes) in the world, as he mulls, plans, trains, and attempts to climb the iconic El Capitan – the 3,000 ft. behemoth in California’s Yosemite National Park – without safety equipment.
The film also delves into Alex’s childhood, his inspirations for climbing, his romantic life, the relationship with his family, and his ascent to the top of the climbing world. But mostly it focuses on his reasoning for wanting to conquer El Capitan, which is a challenging climb with a rope, and the lengths he’s willing to go to make it a reality.
While all of that makes for interesting viewing, the subplot of the directors/producers/climbers/photographers/film crew/friends recruited to create the project wrestle with the idea of potentially watching/recording their friend plummet off the face of a mountain, is even more captivating.
Alex Honnold climbs through the enduro corner on El Capitan's Freerider. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
Before suggesting you rush out to see this, I will offer a word of caution: I’m not great, but not particularly awful when it comes to heights, and there were times when some of the camera shots (particularly those shot from above) made me a bit queasy. And that was on a 47-inch screen in my living room. I imagine the effect on a theater screen would be even more jarring. If you’re afraid of heights, this probably isn’t for you.
That said, the camera work on this film is outstanding. Everything from the shots of Alex practicing to making his actual climb to the reactions of his friends/film crew while watching him, are riveting. While Alex is climbing, there are many times you want to look away, but can’t. When watching his crew’s reactions, you feel their anguish and again can’t look away.
That, to me, is the mark of an excellent documentary – it grabs you by throat and forces you to pay attention, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
Alex Honnold free soloing the Scotty-Burke offwedth pitch of Freerider on Yosemite's El Capitan. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
That discomfort carries over into the narrative portion of the film, too, as Alex tries to balance a semi-new serious relationship with his need to be focused (and potentially a little selfish) to complete the task at hand, and his seeming indifference to the aforementioned mixed emotions of his crew.
It’s an in-depth look at absolute resolve and stoic focus that you rarely get a glimpse of. Sure, sports networks show you behind-the-curtain glimpses of the NBA and NFL all the time, but the stakes (losing a game versus plummeting to certain death) are not even in the same realm.
From beginning to end, “Free Solo” makes you wonder what kind of greatness you can achieve by putting yourself out there, while simultaneously thinking, “Nah, if this type of craziness is out there, I’m good chilling on my old couch in my favorite sweatpants.”
★★★★ ½ of ★★★★★
Alex Honnold free solo climbing on El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)