Monday, December 17, 2018

Film Review: Free Solo

On June 3rd, 2017, Alex Honnold did the unthinkable. He climbed Freerider (5.13a, VI) on El Capitan, without a rope. That's three-thousand feet of hard climbing, where even the most minor mistake, would result in death.

This has been described as an Olympic-level achievement, where if you didn't get a gold medal, the silver is death. It's been described as perhaps the most audacious achievement in sports history. And it has been described as "the hardest thing anyone has done, ever..."

I posted some of those thoughts online after Alex completed his route and was roundly attacked by people who didn't see it as that big a deal. Or thought that these comparisons lacked depth or thought. But I have to say that, this is a big deal. It is not the type of thing that just anybody is going to go out and do. It is an incredible achievement.

And here's the other thing...there was a film crew with him through the whole ascent.


Free Solo is a terrifying film. It chronicles everything that leads up to this insane ascent. We see him train. We see him climb and we see him fail, on the very wall he's going to free solo. We see him get injured. And we see him as he develops a relationship with a woman named Sanni McCandless.

The process of prepping for his ascent of Freerider is deeply impacted by his relationship with Sanni. Imagine your partner going off to war. That's bad. But now imagine that your parter is going to a war zone that no one has ever gone to before. And then imagine that the reason no one has ever gone to that war zone is because the likelihood of survival is nearly zero. And after imagining all that, imagine that your partner was choosing to go to this particular war zone that it's unlikely he'll return from...not to win a war or to stop an enemy, but because it was a personal goal to go that war zone...

How does Sanni deal with such a choice? How does Alex feel about falling in love, but still wanting this crazy dangerous thing?

And while you can never truly get into Alex's head, it is possible to see glimpses of his concern, particularly his concern for his friends and girlfriend if he were to fall. And we also see glimpses of the deep steely resolve that allows the climber to solo at such a high level and stay alive.


Though this film is quite good, it does drag a bit about three-quarters of the way through. There is a sequence within the film that really bogs it down and undermines the frenetic energy that existed within it previously. The story of Alex's relationship is deeply important to the film. But when they start looking at houses, and buying refrigerators, and talking about sleeping on the floor of the new house, it really starts to drag. There are ten to twelve minutes within this section that should have been cut in order to tighten up the movie. Once they get through this section, the film, once again, becomes an amazing ride.

Free Solo is an incredible experience with beautiful images and engaging characters throughout, but it is often hard to watch. My hands were slick with sweat through the bulk of the film. Additionally, they regularly showed the cameramen and how they were responding to the ascent. Mikey Schaefer, a well known climber and cameraman, spent a lot of time looking away from the camera during the ascent. His fear for Alex translated into our fear. And when he gets to the summit, we feel a deep sense of accomplishment.

Jimmy Chin -- one of the filmmakers -- meets Alex at the top, tears brimming in his eyes. Clearly, he was happy his friend was still alive. Clearly, it was a great release of tension to see him standing on the top.

Alex Honnold, on the other hand, simply smiled and said, "I feel delight, I'm delighted..."

And anybody who takes the opportunity to experience this film, will feel delight too.

--Jason D. Martin

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