By Alan Yudman
To say that Alex Honnold is a complicated guy is an understatement as big as El Capitan is high. But that complication is what makes FREE SOLO an excellent movie, one that deserved the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Honnold is a roc k climber. That’s like saying Picasso is a painter or Mozart was a musician. Honnold breaks barriers and does things no sane person would or could do. The feature piece of the movie is Honnold’s quest to free climb the 3,000 foot monolith known as El Capitan in Yosemite. Free climbing is what it sounds like. The climber ascends the mountain by himself, with no ropes. So if you fall, you die. Crazy? Yes. Absolutely. Plenty of Honnold’s contemporaries and heroes have died free climbing. But Honnold seems different. He goes about this in a very scientific way. He’s not the wild man taking risks in every facet of his life. He is methodical. He plans every move, tries to take every possible scenario into account. He trains and trains, then trains some more. And if doesn’t feel it’s right he’s not afraid to stop. Honnold acknowledges the risk. He talks about it being scary and not wanting to die. But he also has a detachment from the risk. That is born out when he goes for an MRI and the technicians tell him his amygdala doesn’t fire. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s that his threshold for activating that flight or fight response is beyond their ability to test it.
FREE SOLO is also about relationships, or more precisely how Honnold doesn’t seem to feel they are necessary. He appreciates his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. I think he loves her, but emotions are more challenging for Alex than climbing a sheer face with no ropes. The movie does not shy away from these difficult relationships. When Sanni leaves right before he takes on El Cap (I wanna be hip just like these climbers), it’s heart breaking. She really believes Alex could die and it is tearing her up. The film crew that shot the movie are all Hannold’s friends. They know he is the most skilled free climber around and they want in on the adventure, but they also don’t want to see him die. Like Sanni, it tears them apart.
The movie also celebrates achievement and that spirit of adventure that used to be so common in the United States (a similar theme of APOLLO 11).
That’s the genius of FREE SOLO. It’s not just a portrait of a climber, that is also a beautiful postcard for Yosemite National Park. It’s an emotional story about a man who is not like anyone you will ever meet. It explores what drives him and how that impacts those that love him. Hannold may climb rocks by himself, but he is not alone.