Free Solo (2018)

Directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

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There’s a lot in common between Alex Honnold and Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild).  They both lived by a certain code that could (and for McCandless did) kill them, and these two films in part celebrate their drive and accomplishment as well as suggest how such will could isolate them from the people around them.

It’s hard not to be romantic about Honnold’s single-minded drive, even if you think it’s any combination of crazy/selfish/suicidal/immature/reckless/etc.  The fact that his feat could be all those things makes it no less impressive.  The night after watching this movie I kept having half-asleep dreams about what it would’ve been like to hang unprotected to the side of a mountain.

Honnold is just so far removed from your run of the mill human that watching him onscreen, even just talking through his own philosophy, is riveting.  Then you have the additional layer of the crew filming his ‘never-been-done-before’ climb as it occurs, tackling the very real possibility that they could be recording the climber’s death.

It’s so complicated and fascinating.  I can’t remember the last time a film worked in such a moral gray area, at least on both textual and meta-textual levels.  Should this movie even exist?  It’s impossible not to think of the exhilarating movie without considering what could’ve happened and what that would’ve meant for all of those involved.

I suppose it’s a story, at its core, about someone who flies to close to the sun and the people he takes with him.  But at the same time Honnold, presumably, never asked to be documented.  He explains that in the past he would never tell anyone when he was about to go on a “free solo” (no rope) climb so that no one would worry about him.  Now you have a dozen or so cameras capturing his every move as he attempts the toughest free solo of his life.

So I found myself wanting to know more about the filmmakers involved.  They are rock climbers themselves, who can surely appreciate Honnold’s drive but who also look wearily at his planned ascent.  Co-director Jimmy Chin is seen on camera several times shaking his head in deep thought over the tortured decision to film this climb, but I’d love to know more about Chin himself.

What was that decision-making process like?  What was planned in the event Honnold ditched the plan (as he nearly does at one point) or didn’t make it?  There is a lot of time and money invested in his mission, and though Chin on camera reminds Honnold that he can turn them away at any moment, there would seem to be an undeniable pressure on Honnold to perform for the camera.

As he does eventually make his climb, one of the camera operators down on the floor of the Yosemite Valley keeps looking away from his camera, unable to handle the suspense. That type of suspense would seem to eat away at your soul in a way that I could see a rift developing between him and those who hired him, even if he agreed to take part.  To be put through such an emotional grinder… well I just wanted to know more about that side of the project.

There’s also Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni.  Their relationship is given plenty of attention as she worries understandably over him, and he makes it clear that she comes second to climbing in his life.  He’s a climber first and foremost, and he refuses to compromise his goals in life for this person.  In theory, from far enough away, to pursue with all your heart the thing you want in life makes perfect sense, but agreeing to let someone into your life would suggest you at least reconsider some of those pursuits from a new angle.  If it adds undue pressure to her and their life together, maybe it’s something that can be set aside.

In the case of Honnold it’s not.

So like with Chris McCandless this is a figure romanticized and criticized.  He is someone who would attract a lot of strong opinions, but he’s just a fascinating figure who speaks to something within all of us.  It’s our own awareness of consequences or the degree to which we feel fear that prevents us from going to lengths similar to Honnold.  He doesn’t have those things, and because of that there is something pure but aggravating about his drive.

Up Next: The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)

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