“Free Solo” by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin is a documentary about Alex Honnold, who climbed El Capitan at Yosemite without ropes or other supports, using only his body and his mental force. The story is psychological as much as physical and for me, having a deep fear of high beds, it seemed like a horror film.
Honnold grew up a bit introverted, by his own admission, but he spent every moment he could climbing or thinking about climbing. His mother is a French teacher, who rarely spoke to him in English and his father was a bit morose but became obsessed with travelling from place to place.
Climbing consumes Honnold; it is his first priority. He is asked about romantic relationships and likes the idea, but facing a mountain and climbing without ropes is his first love. It allows him to focus.
“Free Solo” chronicles Honnold’s quest to reach the top of El Capitan some 3,000 feet up. This challenge demands perfection and omits all distractions including his girlfriend Sanni. Many have thought that Honnold is detached or peculiar, but as Peter Croft says in the film in paraphrase, “Romance can crack your armor.” To not have absolute concentration can mean death.
Sanni as Honnold’s girlfriend is torn between being supportive of him, and being judgmental and protective. Sanni watches him practice and twist his body in knots, knowing this could be his last free solo climb. Grimly, no one has attempted this feat and lived.
With Zen like mindfulness Alex Honnold moves forward, choosing not to discuss any details with Sanni. Leaving him the day of the ascent, she understandably breaks down crying.
Wondering why he persists in climbing again and again, Honnold supposes that he is filled with some self-loathing or the push to be perfect. As his mother said, according to the film, “Good is not good enough.”
The film starts as a vivid portrait but then builds into something tense and claustrophobic. Honnold bends and squashes his body. He winces and exhales. He must climb El Capitan. There is no other way. At first, one worries whether his romantic relationship will survive, then shockingly it becomes clear that Honnold himself may not live to tell of the ascent.
The cinematography is unmatched, illustrating something of Edmund Burke’s Theory of The Sublime (one tiny man against Yosemite, slick, majestic and Terrible in its weight). As the filmmakers put you right on the side of El Capitan, looking straight down, the awe-inspiring nature of Honnold’s goal sinks in.
Alex Honnold is a human being of supernatural skill, but one wonders when he will stop. Climbing free solo is his first love, his meaning, his spirit and how he is wired. But he is driven above all, which raises disturbing questions: where is his next rock encounter? Are his wars endless and where, if ever, will they end?
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