Movie review: “Free Solo”

OK so time for a late movie review, courtesy of Jen Ockelmann-Wagner and her Disney+ subscription! (Thanks, Jen!) I’ve finally sat down and watched “Free Solo”, the documentary which follows the mountain climber Alex Honnold from early 2016 through his successful attempt to free solo El Capitan in 2017. Shot by a team of mountain-climbing filmmakers for National Geographic, the film is wildly technologically impressive, though you are unlikely to notice any of the extraordinary efforts put into camera placement, mic work, or drone piloting from the tiny slats between your fingers, which is about the only way to watch this movie. Wisely, the filmmakers invest significant time explaining not only the self-evident reasons why free soloing—climbing without ropes or safety equipment of any kind—is impossibly dangerous, but also the subtler challenges that Honnold faced on the rock, most of which would be completely unfamiliar to the earthbound. For instance: did you know that there is an entire section of El Capitan made of “vertical glass”, where the only pressure adhering your feet to the rock is the amount of leverage you can create with the last joint of your fingers? And did you furthermore know that there are sections of El Capitan where the only hold available is a narrow crevice into which you must insert your body, sideways, and allow the crevice to skin you as you climb? I did not know these things, but Alex Honnold does, and knows them more intimately than any human ever has, or likely ever will. Watching him train for the climb in harness is informative, as he patiently unravels the trickier sections of rock into a mental litany of moves, falling many times in the process—you get a sense of how wildly dangerous this climb is for even roped climbers, and how insane a free attempt truly is. At one point, Honnold seriously considers a lateral move that would have him leaping through space, both hands away from the rock, hoping to catch a fingerhold so scant it is literally invisible to the viewer. This is around the point that you will begin to have serious questions about Honnold’s brain. Thankfully, the filmmakers are right on your level—the movie puts Honnold through such varied tests as a CAT scan, a neuropsychological battery, and a trip to Home Depot with his girlfriend Sanni to pick out refrigerators (“Look at this one, it’s so adequate!” he enthuses over a modest white one). Of all the inquiries the movie subjects Honnold to, though, almost none is as revealing as the brief glimpse into his childhood, where we learn that his mother’s favorite sayings included such gems as “good enough isn’t”, and that, absent any parental modeling of the gesture, Honnold taught himself to hug at twenty-three. Small wonder that, when Sanni shyly asks if their relationship might be considered motivation to pull back from some of the more dangerous free climbs, Honnold doesn’t even blink before scoffing, “Oh, no.” It’s evident that the astonishing mental architecture that allows Alex Honnold to scale unbelievable peaks also places him at a similar lofty distance from the humans who care for him, or try to. In one of the film’s colder moments, he explains his philosophy of “warrior-like” excellence, saying that “Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy. Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and cozy.” One could easily imagine the same discomfort-fetishizing philosophy animating the world’s most brutal conquistadors and plunderers, or, if you’d prefer a more current analogy, any Silicon Valley startup requesting 80-hour weeks of its employees. Alex Honnold’s achievement is profound, and affirming of the human spirit; but so is that of Sanni, whose capacity to nurture and love is demonstrably as great as Honnold’s capacity for mountaineering. I am glad that Alex Honnold exists in the world. But I am gladder that there are more of her in the world than there are of him.

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