By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
I’ve always had a fascination with the unique mindset and courage it takes to climb mountains, immersing myself in college in the writings of Jon Krakauer and climbing exploits from the ice walls of the Alps to the unmatchable heights of the Himalayas.
I even had to see Everest for myself, although I’m not even tempted to try and climb it.
One of the finest documentaries to stoke this fascination in recent years was Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Meru, which documented in breathtaking first-person filmmaking the ascent of a route once thought unconquerable. Now with Free Solo, they’re documenting another unprecedented feat- the free soloing of Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan granite wall by the boldest climber of them all- Alex Honnold.
First, let me define free soloing real quick- it is climbing without the aid of anything besides a little talcum powder and the steel of a climber’s own muscles and nerves.
No judgment if you just shit your pants. I’ll wait while you take care of that.
Now that you’re back, the first toast-worthy aspect of this film is the just insane footage and access that it has- really, a dangerous amount. A not insignificant portion of this film is the unfakeable terror the filmmakers themselves, all seasoned climbers who need to make an equipment-aided but far from risk-free ascent themselves to place and run the cameras, have at both what Honnold is about to do as well as what their own complicity would be in his far from unlikely death as a result of this film.
I knew he lived and prevailed (spoiler alert for those who missed the news blitz when it happened plus couldn’t guess how deal-breakingly macabre releasing a film like this would be if he hadn’t), but somehow I still was convinced he was going to die when watching him, and I imagine that even the filmmakers cutting the footage had a hard time believing they didn’t accidentally make a snuff film that they’ll discover when splicing the final scenes in place. It just doesn’t feel possible that a human being did this and lived to tell the tale- the cognitive dissonance is stunning.
Free Solo makes a point to expand beyond the feat itself to digs as deep as it can in his psyche before the climb. It ends up accomplishing this more by delving into the minds of those that surround and love this cypher of a human being- from his Kristen Bell ringer girlfriend who is torn between her very human desire not to see the man she loves do this suicidal thing and her knowing that he won’t rest until he has, to his quite cold herself mother who lifts the veil a bit into what kind of childhood abets the kind of drive Honnold has, to his accomplished free soloing friends whose can’t look at this shit terror in the midst of his climb tells you more about how dangerous this is than any other fact.
It even documents researchers taking an MRI of his brain and finding that his amygdala just doesn’t light up at the stimuli normal humans do, but all of this explanation doesn’t quite crack the nut of what makes Alex Honnold tick.- the man can’t help but resist tidy definition no matter how task-driving his parents were or how abnormal his approach to danger is. The more he talks, the less you feel like you’re getting any real insight into what makes him tick for real. Perhaps the ending, where his elation is expressed in a few weak “that felt awesome”s tells us the most- he may just be driven to do these things because they’re giant checkboxes on a To Do List that’s unrecognizable to any human but maybe himself.
Also, the final ascent is surprisingly elided over- which may be a function of how much access the filmmakers were given in the ultimate moment, but judging by the shots they did take, I don’t think so. Perhaps they were afraid our own amygdalas would desensitize at all of this jaw-dropping footage- still, this portion of the film, while still jaw-dropping, seems a bit faster cut and consequently less impactful than their footage in Meru.
Free Solo is the most frightening two hours you’ll spend in a theater this year, either from the extreme peril of Alex Honnold’s exploits or the unplumbable depths of his mind.
Free Solo (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time you realize your hands are covering your mouth again
Take a Drink: whenever Honnold’s girlfriend visibly stifles an urge to beg him to stop
Take a Drink: whenever Honnold says something callous
Take a Drink: for every mention of death
Do a Shot: when you see something that just doesn’t feel possible made so