“There’s no margin for error.”
A part of me almost wishes Free Solo didn’t exist. That this historic human feat dodged the media hoopla and the camera lights and relied on the strength of conviction rather than physical proof. Maybe then it’d have felt as mythic as it should. The acrophobic visuals dazzle though, especially once the documentary finally settles into – all too briefly – free soloist climber Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s legendary granite monolith dubbed “El Capitan.” Free Solo is both nerve-racking and astonishing in these moments, like the type of jaw-dropping still photos you would normally see tagged with an inspirational quote beneath. As for the rest of the film, it’s a vague attempt to be personal without much personality at its emotionally benign center.
The camera hovers above as Alex Honnold clings to the side of El Cap, a bird’s-eye view of a lonely fly on a behemoth of a wall, the sea of trees thousands of feet below the only other organic life form within the frame. Honnold’s steady feet and chalked hands are at peace while our toes tap and our palms sweat. He’s not like most of us, more nervous navigating our overpopulated concrete jungle than when he is alone, in his element, doing the thing he admittedly loves more than anyone or anything else. Free Solo spends the vast majority of its run-time out of Honnold’s comfort zone, and while that challenges the climber’s hold on everyday life, it also diminishes the final product’s staying power during his pursuit towards perfection. You’ll be surprised by just how little time is dedicated to showing us his otherworldly conquering act.
His father had Asperger’s, a genetic condition the socially awkward Alex isn’t formally diagnosed with but seems to have at least been influenced by. Mom drilled the phrases “Almost doesn’t count” and “Good enough, isn’t” into his head at an early age, helping to shape him into an individual who values pristine performance over happiness. To Honnold, everybody can be happy but not every body can be perfect. It goes without saying that he’s an intriguing man, a devoted student to life or death events, albeit far too inaccessible to shape an entire film around. Even his romantic relationship with Sanni McCandless becomes strangely framed as a negative hindrance on Alex. I understand why Free Solo takes this route. The documentary wants us to invest in and worry about the guy who could fall out of the frame to meet his maker at any second. Oddly though, the movie cares about mortality more than Honnold ever does.
Free Solo seems to be a documentary made by climbers, for climbers, focused on a single climber. The directing team of married couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (whose 2015 project Meru you should stream) know how to shoot Honnold as he scales the wall, capturing some images that are truly breathtaking in IMAX format, but their film loses its grip when they try to knock down the locked doors of a man who’d rather open them on his own accord. It takes a certain kind of mental fortitude to attempt such an undertaking, and the footage is able to wax rhapsodic and penetrate Honnold’s psyche better than any questions ever could. Free Solo draws Alex Honnold as a man. It’s a good painting. But a quieter, more surveillant portrait of the stoic might have immortalized his endeavor for what it truly is: extraordinary, inspirational, superhuman.
“There’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5