Review: 'Free Solo' portrays the heartbreaking costs of triumpth
In Yosemite Valley, a massive rock formation looms over the sweeping vistas of picturesque splendor. Known as El Capitan, it towers 3000 feet high and commands the attention of all who pass by. For years, one member of that rapt audience has looked at El Capitan with a particularly audacious intent: to climb the sheer granite wall with no ropes, gear or safety equipment.
Alex Honnold’s absurdly daring attempt to free solo climb El Capitan is the subject of the extraordinary documentary “Free Solo,” directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The film is a revelation, beautifully capturing not only what might be the greatest athletic feat of all time but also investigating the personality of the peerless and truly singular man capable of achieving it.
“Free Solo” paints an unflinching portrait of Alex Honnold as a man possessed. He lives, and someday will likely die, for free solo climbing. It supersedes every other interest in his life, consuming his being to the point of destruction. As Honnold callously explains early on in the film, “I will always choose climbing over a lady.” But it’s not just girlfriends — Honnold will choose climbing over every earthly pleasure, including life itself; he’d rather fall to his death from halfway up El Capitan than never attempt it at all. Much of the intrigue of “Free Solo” comes out of the pure fascination of Alex Honnold as the audience wonders who in their right mind would ever choose to hang their life upon a miniscule foothold.
By the end of the movie, there still isn’t a complete answer, but we have some clues. A brain MRI shows that Honnold’s amygdala — the part of the brain that processes emotions, including fear — doesn’t activate at the same levels of stimulus as normal people. And later on, Honnold explains that he had to teach himself how to hug in his twenties because nobody in his family had ever hugged him or said, “I love you.” Then there’s the monumental evidence of Honnold’s own words and actions, which speak volumes about his unique personality. Often, he comes across as cold, unloving and selfish, especially with those who want to love him most. The center of this quagmire is Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who is hopelessly torn between her love for Alex and the fact that it seems he’ll never love her back as much as he loves climbing. Their relationship is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film, revealing how Honnold keeps tenderness at bay in order to preserve his steely resolve.
Vasarhelyi and Chin deserve the highest praise for their artful direction of “Free Solo.” They film moments of grand natural beauty and tight personal struggle with equal gravity and intrigue. It helps that Chin is a highly experienced climber himself, so he’s often up on the rock walls with Alex, hanging from a rope and capturing the alarming juxtaposition of one man against the enormity of nature. In fact, some of the shots in “Free Solo” are so mesmerizing that they become emotional. Near the end of the film, as Honnold is about to complete his ascent of El Capitan, a distant camera pans across the huge rock formation, and Honnold looks like a speck of nothingness; a tiny blotch of red facing his greatest personal challenge against an immovable work of nature so much bigger and more enduring than himself. Moments like these are profoundly moving, showing us the remarkable results of pure human willpower in the face of intense trial.
One of the biggest takeaways from “Free Solo” is the fact that passion requires sacrifice. Honnold is in love with climbing rocks, and he’s willing to sacrifice anything in order to keep doing it. He lives in a van, traveling the country like a vagabond with chalky hands. His acquaintances are many, but his friends are few. And his commitment to maintaining an armor against emotions costs him the fulfillment of loving relationships. Honnold is in so deep with this last notion that he almost breaks up with Sanni over her fault in a climbing mishap that causes Honnold a back injury. Despite the fact that the couple ultimately stays together, it was still disturbing for me to realize that Honnold is willing to ditch the person who loves him most because of how her presence inhibits his complete commitment to climbing. But that’s a choice that he’s made, and he holds to it in order to keep the greatest passion in his life alive.
I left “Free Solo” with a confusing blend of amazement and sadness. Honnold’s story is, from one angle, a soaring triumph of human spirit and physical endurance. From another perspective, though, it’s a tragedy about a man whose monomania consumes his life. Honnold’s life is terrifyingly devoid of the warmth and care of love, and it seems to have left him adrift. Starting during his loveless childhood, he has built himself a wall whose only loose brick lies in free solo climbing. It’s alone on a rock face where Honnold actually exists, and everywhere else he’s just a shadow. I think there’s something truly tragic about that, and I think Honnold knows this too. During the scene where he goes to get his brain MRI, Honnold also fills out a questionnaire that, among other things, asks if he’s depressed. When Honnold gets to this question, his face sinks as he seems to contemplate something he’s tried not to touch for so many years. It’s like he’s being forced to realize that his obsession with climbing is more of a destructive curse than he’d like to think. In the end, it appears that Honnold is destined for a life of constant struggle. He might put it best himself when he says that “Nobody achieves anything great when they’re happy and cozy.” “Free Solo” shows that in Alex Honnold’s pursuit of greatness, he’s become eternally alienated from the happy and the cozy.
“Free Solo” is showing for a limited time at the Nugget Theater until this upcoming Thursday.