In the parlance of rock-climbers, to “free solo” means to climb alone and without a rope — basically, to remove all margin for error. If you make a mistake, you die. What you must keep reminding yourself while watching the documentary “Free Solo” — about a man training to ascend one of the world’s most challenging cliffs — is this: If he had fallen to his death, they wouldn’t have made the movie. Or maybe they would have, but it would have been about his death, like that documentary about the guy who got eaten by a bear.
So, no, Alex Honnold does not fall to his death in “Free Solo.” As of this writing (October 2018), he has not fallen to his death at all, though it seems likely that he will at some point. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (and a team of brave camera operators), this is an eye-popping profile of an extraordinary athlete whose brain literally doesn’t work the same as normal people’s (there’s an MRI and everything), yet who doesn’t behave like a reckless or thoughtless person. A lanky, amiable dude with zero body fat and a fondness for the word “stoked,” Honnold is an eco-conscious vegetarian who started a charitable foundation, not some Mountain Dew nihilist daredevil who gets off on risking his life.
Free soloing isn’t about public recognition anyway. In fact, one of the issues that arises in the film as Honnold prepares to climb 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is that, for the first time, a camera crew will be watching him. The filmmakers are worried that being observed will make Honnold act differently — more boldly, perhaps — and they struggle with the hypothetical possibility that their presence will lead to his death. Honnold is concerned, too, in his own way. “I don’t want to fall off in front of my friends,” he says. “That’s messed up.”
The way you train for something like El Capitan is by climbing sections of it with a rope and harness, though I note that the presence of safety equipment doesn’t make anything Honnold does look less terrifying, and the high-definition cameras capture every precarious view in gorgeous detail. He trains with fellow pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who tells us about the “mental armor” that you have to wear if you’re the friend or loved one of a free-soloist. Honnold never tells anyone before he does a free-solo climb, lest he feel added pressure to “be safe.” His girlfriend, Sanni, a casual climber who’s responsible for Honnold being injured twice (RED FLAG, DUDE), struggles with the knowledge that climbing is more important to him than anything else. (It’s one of those “I know you told me this when we started dating, but I was hoping it wouldn’t apply to me” situations.)
Even knowing the eventual outcome of Honnold’s El Capitan endeavor, “Free Solo” is a thrilling story, mixing elements of nature documentaries (it’s being distributed by National Geographic) and character studies about fascinating weirdos. Prepare for a lot of breath-holding and armrest-clutching in what must be, on a physical level, the most unnerving movie of the year.
P.S. Because of El Capitan’s topography, the film includes dialogue such as “That’s 3,000 feet of crack-climbing” and “That’s the most magnificent crack on planet Earth.” Enjoy!
B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; )