Chances are that not many audience members watching Free Solo have or will ever put themselves in the positions that rock climber Alex Honnold continually pursues. Some might say, as his ex-girlfriends do, that the daring Honnold has some kind of disorder, but for Honnold, seeking new challenges, literally rising to the occasion and quite literally risking death, is what most makes life worth living. For those willing to risk a queasy stomach and sweaty palms, Free Solo is the closest they can get to feeling Honnold’s obvious drive, to understanding his uncommon passion, and to mining his record-making, rope-free solo climb up Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan for triumphant spiritual nourishment.
Already a celebrated athlete, Honnold has dreamt about free climbing El Capitan for years. Many of his previous climbs have had the same dare: Achieve perfection or risk pretty certain death. But El Capitan is different, 3,000 feet of seemingly blank granite, daunting even to the most experienced climber, and Free Solo is as much about the climb itself as it is about excavating the personality of someone who would attempt such a feat, even as his friends and family wait on the sidelines, quietly begging him to reconsider.
Merely reading about Honnold’s free solo climbs cannot compare with witnessing the seeming magic of such feats, and the climbing footage in Free Solo is absolutely riveting. But the grounded footage of Honnold himself is equally as intriguing. Living in a van and in the early stages of a relationship with a young woman whose devotion he struggles to reciprocate, Honnold is an enigma. For climbing, he has undying, clear-eyed dedication. In regard to everything else, including seemingly normal subjects like love, family, and even life itself, his eyes glaze over and his demeanor shrinks to something that could be described as cold.
But while Honnold’s athletic prowess is Free Solo’s main event, his offbeat charm, generously explored through one-on-one interviews that explore both his personal and professional failures and successes, is the heart. Well-placed glimpses into Honnold’s childhood give added context to his obsessions. The filmmakers’ obvious fondness, and even fear, for Honnold gives the film an added level of suspense that moves it from simple sports documentary to triumphant character study. Honnold’s girlfriend Sanni McCandless and his close friend, celebrated rock climber Tommy Caldwell, prove to be able foils to Honnold’s closed-off manner. Both Sanni and Tommy believe in him, but they also clearly worry about him, and their affectionate anxiety adds genuinely moving and complicated emotion to the story, even if Honnold himself would rather simply keep his eyes on the prize.
As Honnold nears the moment of his remarkable feat, filling notebooks with scribbled details about El Capitan’s dangers and paths and practicing with ropes, Free Solo adds tidbits of human detail that round out the drama. An MRI visit suggests a scientific reason for Honnold’s fixations, while the filmmakers themselves dither about the ethics of encouraging a film about such a dangerous climb in the first place. Sanni and Tommy waver in their faith, and even Honnold himself suffers temporary dips in his drive. It all adds up to a superbly crafted portrait of one person’s determination to face his fears and the power of that act to inspire every person around him. Even if audiences won’t make the same literal leap that Honnold does, his victory just might motivate countless climbs of another kind.