An exhilarating, immersive achievement. Free Solo is simply the best sports documentary ever made if you had to categorize it.
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Very few films put you in the thick of it, so to speak, like the new documentary Free Solo from directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. You aren’t just treated to some awe-inspiring visuals from above, with wide-angle views that reward the viewer with a weightless feel (this is the team that gave us the Academy Award shortlisted 2015 documentary film Meru after all), they immerse you within the tiniest details. You can feel the dusty rock chalk between their fingers, the trickles of sweat rolling off their foreheads, while the camera captures the tension of the climber’s fingertips gripping any small crevice they can find to keep the climber from tumbling to their likely demise. If your palms aren’t sweating by the end of the film, you’re probably a rock climber yourself or suffering from an underactive amygdala (more on that later).
Free Solo documents the singular vision of Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber and UC Berkley drop out, best known for performing a series of free solo ascents, who is attempting to be the first to do so climbing El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park (known as the most magnificent crack on the planet). Honnold is extraordinarily comfortable within his own skin, has a quiet confidence, and knows what he wants out of life. He has no qualms about living in a van, driving around the country, looking for “walls” with long, tall routes, that he then tries to climb quickly, quicker than anyone else. He wants to climb without a safety net; he knows this will eventually lead to his death (most free solo climbers per his friend, Tommy Caldwell, have died free soloing by themselves, all passing on in their late 30’s or 40’s), so why worry about the result when you should be living the journey?
Honnold hasn’t had much success with women, saying living in a can doesn’t help, but you immediately wonder if that deflection is because what serious relationship can one have with someone who seeks out dangers without a safety-net to be happy? The very human element of the film is how concentration is key to any successful climb, and any distraction, no matter how tiny, can have serious consequence. So, when Honnold finally starts to get close to a woman he met in Seattle named Sonya, he coincidentally starts to have more accidents in a short time frame than he has had the previous decade climbing. His friend Tommy explains that you must have armor on when you climb, nothing can affect your determination and concentration. It appears letting someone in is affecting that singular goal.
He’s a fascinating case study, really, and the film offers extraordinary insight into what the mindset you need to be successful at the sport. Honnold even wonders if his own brain is working properly with his obsession with rock climbing, but he is never worried about it. There is a reason for that; Honnold’s amygdala doesn’t function like normal people. In a feature from Nautilus, they determined that this is the “center of a threat response and interpretation system. It receives information on a straight pathway from our senses, which allows us to, for example, step back from an unexpected precipice without a moment’s conscious thought.” So, basically, when normal people like you and I are in a stressful situation, the racing heartbeat, the sweaty palms that come in a flight or fight response, are transmitted by the amygdala. Honnold’s is underactive, not overactive. Knowing that now, we can see why he is so calm in almost any situation, personally or professionally. His demeanor is not an act. He never shows fear because of his own biological makeup; he was literally born to do this.
The film doesn’t so much explore what it takes to be a champion but explores what exactly drives this man, and what type of person is needed in order to be successful at one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Honnold compartmentalizes then rationalizes the deaths of his fellow friends and professional colleagues who pass away from solo accidents, saying life goes on, just as if he dies climbing, it will be a blip on the screen, and, “No one will care.” It’s a cold, almost clinical, but remarkably self-aware assessment of someone who knows someday his greatest passion is going to kill him, and that he is at peace with it.
Free Solo is much more than a sports documentary if you had to classify it that way. Vasarhkyi and Chin’s film is honest and direct, an immersive experience, unlike any documentary you have ever seen. It’s a testament to whatever your passion is, whatever your goals are, go ahead, don’t wait, and just do it. Alex Honnold has lived more than most have done in a lifetime, and life is too short to not do what you love.
Please note, Free Solo has been re-released in Imax 2D this week. If you can help it, seek the film out in that format in theatres. The majestic views of climbing El Capitan are well worth the price of admission (even more so if you have a subscription movie plan like AMC or Sinemia).
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.