With around 20 minutes left in Free Solo, I felt my heart pounding in my chest. It felt like a jackhammer at 5 am. I was watching a man climb thousands of feet, his hands gripping thin ledges, his shoes a precarious layer of textile separating him from a granite rockface. Every subtle movement made me wish he had stayed on the ground and every inch to the top made me root for him to keep going.
It’s that contradiction that makes up one of the emotional cores of Free Solo, which just won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It is a daring look at Alex Honnold, a world-class professional climber who also happens to sometimes engage in free soloing – climbing without any ropes or safety harnesses. For two years, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin worked with Honnold and filmed parts of his life, including his daily routines, starting a relationship, and training to be the first person to free solo El Capitan, a nearly 3,000-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park. Spoiler alert: it culminates in Honnold successfully free soloing El Capitan in a mere 3 hours and 56 minutes on June 3, 2017.
As many articles written about Free Solo have noted, all climbing is dangerous. Basically, most outdoor activities can hurt you in some way. I don’t do anything anywhere as dangerous as Honnold does and I have ridges of scars from when I slid off a boulder and smacked into its neighbor. These scars will probably never fade, and I’m okay with that. Still, some of my scars have come from my cats or from absentmindedly touching a hot pan handle as I was cooking – perfectly mundane things and not the activities of a thrillseeker of any magnitude.
When Honnold says in Free Solo that a lot of things could kill you, he’s right. So why risk it all to climb without any safety equipment and where you either live or you don’t?
Chin and Vasarhelyi are interested in this question, just like everyone else. They’re also interested in what makes their friend, Alex, want to do it (Chin probably knows, he’s a professional climber himself). But more than this, they want to show what it’s like to exist in the climbing world and so they take their film to the heart of that experience – what it’s like to be Alex Honnold, what it’s like to be watching him from the outside, what it’s like to care about him, and what it’s like for him to care about others. Lots of people can make an adventure documentary; Chin and Vasarhelyi have crafted something else entirely. They manage to, in about 1 hour and 40 minutes, examine all the typical adventure tropes like the oneness with nature and the act of pushing oneself to the limits. But it’s the parts where they show Honnold opening up to emotional risks and minor bouts of introspection and examination rather than physical challenges that make the film stand out.
Free Solo is excellently shot and composed; those epic peaks and rockfaces are in full glory, and it appropriately emphasizes the incredible danger and risk of an absolutely bonkers endeavor like free soloing El Capitan. It is often funny and charming, and it also differentiates the legendary act from the man doing it. Alex Honnold may possess an otherworldly skill, but he is also human. It’s easy to crown kings and legends; it’s harder to admit they’re fallible. It’s that fallibility that creates enormous amounts of tension and anxiety in the documentary and in us as we watch. One of the most emotionally impactful aspects of the documentary is Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend. The documentary production coincides with them starting their relationship and charts an arc for both of them. McCandless expresses repeatedly the tension between loving someone and realizing that this love means you can never ask them to give up something that might kill them and Honnold understands bit by bit the compromise involved in being in a relationship when your life and sole focus has been on climbing (he lived in a customized van for almost a decade, but has since moved into a house, for example). Chin appears on camera talking about making the documentary, examining out loud the ethics of making it with his friend Alex, who is taking on so much risk. Too much risk, it seems sometimes.
Other voices of concern appear throughout the film. Tommy Caldwell, an elite climber who helped Honnold train for El Capitan, has a persistent, haunting look in his eyes as he talks about the nightmares he has that his friend has died or been injured. It even drove him to write about his fears and to encourage people to reconsider their acceptance of risk because his friend can’t seem to. Mikey Schaefer, a professional climber and cinematographer on Chin’s crew, turned away from his camera positioned at the base of El Capitan as Honnold made his way to the top. He just couldn’t watch.
For his part, Honnold has few answers about why the risk is worthwhile. He says that he understands it, and endeavors to be so prepared that every movement is decided ahead of time and reduces his risk. You see that in the documentary as well, the fact that he spent more than a year meticulously preparing, both on El Capitan and other mountains across the world. For most people, a year would not be enough time and it would be easy to keep preparing and preparing until you were able to admit that no amount of preparation would ever be enough.
I loved Free Solo, it’s an incredible, monumental film. Anyone who has been to a national park or a place high up knows the singular feeling of being on the edge of the world looking out into infinity, and it’s a feeling you can chase forever. But I also felt a tinge of worry for what I saw, because no one wants to see anyone hurt or die in pursuit of climbing. Even though most of us aren’t thrillseekers, we have decided – perhaps wisely and yes, perhaps too safely at times – that what we have here on the ground is enough. Whether that line exists for top climbers like Honnold is a question left unanswered.