By Elias Savada.
Alex Honnold dreams the impossible dream, and he climbs where the brave dare not go. Unlike Don Quixote, he defies death by climbing mountains of sheer granite. Without a rope.
Free solo climbing is a solitary affair that is exhilarating to the extreme. A single misstep generally proves fatal. Like the annual award shows that provide memorials to those who have perished over the last year, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, a climber-cameraman who has known Honnold for over ten years, summarize the deaths of such solo climbers as John Bachar (2009), Sean Leary (2014), Derek Hersey (1993), and others who pushed the limits of their adventurous lives. The sport, as is part of this fine documentary, is a nail biter.
Most folks are unfamiliar with the antics of the gangly, fit, and agile Mr. Honnold. He bears an eerily similarity to Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadway), a despicable character on the Audience Network Stephen King murder-mystery series Mr. Mercedes. Brady, who terrorizes folks even while in a coma, seems just as focused as the central subject in Free Solo. Thankfully, there are no murders in this film, presented by National Geographic.
Tommy Caldwell, another well-respected free soloist, is a tag-along friend in the film, providing support and advice for Alex as he attempts to conquer the 3,000-foot vertical face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. Caldwell offers his own cautionary thoughts on the ethics of filming his friend as he attempts to climb this block of rock, one of the most difficult, according to the Yosemite Decimal System. Caldwell begins one of the “pep talks” caught on camera by telling Alex that he knows 30 or 40 acquaintances who had died trying to fight an unbeatable rocky foe. Free soloing is an experience that no one, even the best in the world, should take lightly.
As Honnold tells his story, the filmmakers provide the visuals: photos, magazine covers, maps with the possible zigzag routes through various pitches in the mammoth rock, and breathtaking closeups of the challenge. The fissures have such rebellious names as Freeblast Slab, Hollow Flake, and Monster Offwidth, the last compared by our superhero to the worst kind of Pilates class in the world, while wiping layers of skin off your body with sandpaper. At the Enduro Corner (2,440 feet), your hands and arms need to be sturdier than usual, so your feet stick to the vertical slab. Honnold casually offers that he has fallen off various points on previous ascents…with a rope.
Yet, armed with good shoes and an open pouch of chalk powder, Honnold reaches for the sky with but a pair of hands and two feet, and a well-researched plan of attack. Free Solo tracks the strategy from a fascinating, up close perspective, focusing on the raw hands and clever dancing that Honnold performs in both rehearsal runs and during the ultimate attempt during the last 20 minutes of the film. The results, when practicing in a safety harness, don’t always point to success.
Tiny nooks and crannies can be missed, and Honnold falls 30 feet during a practice climb. Just an ankle sprain, while Alex blames a spat of injuries on the escalating romantic relationship with his new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who is as emotionally wrought as Alex is stoic. There’s a running apprehension, vocalized by Caldwell, that free solo climbers need to be focused on their climb. That romantic relationships can be detrimental to that concentration. Still, he’s back on a big rock three weeks later, working through a tenderness of his right ankle. There’s some time spent with the climber’s mother, Dierdre Wolownick, who shares her trepidation about his exploits.
Of course, having a film crew – be they the climber/camerapersons or the drones flying nearby – to capture the ascent and possible inadvertently interfere with Alex’s quest, can provide some moments of gallows humor. Alex: “The idea of falling off is…I’m trying to avoid that.” He doesn’t want his friends to witness his demise. Co-director Chin, who pops in and out of the action, does want to make sure that Honnold is copacetic with the filmmakers’ approach to the project.
At the hour mark, the real adventure appears to begin, in the dark of morning, with Honnold doing things even a mountain goat wouldn’t, as he scales the first portion of the mountain with nothing but a headlamp to find the hand- and foot-holds. Sadly, he bails. “Too many random folks about.”
Closeups of the intense climb, with trees out of focus deep in the distance, allow the viewer to experience firsthand the thrill of the climb. The final minutes are expertly captured by all three directors of photography (Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer) and their fleet-footed crew. The film’s most harrowing moments are enhanced by a cautious, exhilarating score by Marco Beltrami (with an end credit boost for a best song nomination for “Gravity” performed by Tim McGraw, who co-wrote it with Lori McKenna).
Spiderman, move over. There’s another fearless warrior on your tail. For those of us who prefer solid, flat earth, take a seat watching Free Solo.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).