I can’t think of another movie that has put me into such anxiety as Free Solo. Shots straight down to the valley floor from the top of El Capitan are terrifying, and the images of rock climber Alex Honnold holding onto a vertical rock face with just the tips of his fingers and toes erases the very idea of rational thought.
At times, Honnold is a red dot on an immense vertical surface, which doesn’t sit easily in the mind. People can’t do this; the mind boggles. The verticality is all wrong – he should be horizontal. It’s as if nothing holds this 33-year old man to the side of the mountain he’s on; it violates visual and spatial logic; it contradicts what we know of gravity. But there he is.
Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Varsarhelyi, observes as Honnold readies himself for a free solo climb of El Capitan, maybe the most difficult climb there is. Free solo means that he has no protection – no ropes or anything else to keep him alive in case he slips. No other person will be there with him; there’s no net below, no nothing. It’s just what free solo implies – Honnold is on that rock face all alone, and as the film mentions over and over, one single slip or mistake and Honnold will fall to his death.
There’s no lack of climbing movies, many of them – as cinema -- dreary accounts of technical climbs, along with notions of conquering great summits and other romanticisms about doing dangerous things. When I was a kid I read books about climbing, like Maurice Herzog’s account of the misery of climbing Annapurna in the Himalayas in 1950. Herzog is famous for saying that the reason he wanted to climb that mountain was “because it’s there.” Alex Honnold doesn’t go for grand existential statements. He once went to college to study engineering, and sometimes he fits the stereotype of a dry, logical engineer. He’s matter of fact, analytical, direct – not a drop of romanticism shows through this man. His early home life was so emotionally empty that he says that when he was about 23 he had to teach himself to hug.
The reach and depth of Free Solo are stunning. This is not a picture about how to climb a sheer rock wall, and it’s not even about why. Instead, Free Solo in blunt terms thinks about death, responsibility and human relationships. Early in the film, Honnold introduces a girlfriend, which brings up these crucial questions.
The movie alternates between the minuscule and the immense, and between the juice of a live being and the mute cold bluntness of the rock. A close shot of the toe of his shoe gaining purchase on a nub of rock maybe a half inch deep shivers your timbers, when you realize that this is what holds him to life. Then a long shot of Honnold on a rock face hits you with the precarious tininess of human life on a huge, unconcerned Earth.
Honnold doesn’t seek out death. He prepares the climb thoroughly; he knows every move he’ll make with his hands and every place he’ll set his feet. But he says that the possibility of death gives heft to the challenge of climbing, and he admits that moments of perfection drive him.
As a viewer, you feel the possibility of death throughout Free Solo. You never know if Honnold is finally going to try El Capitan until he just ups and goes there. And you have no idea if he’ll make it. One time, he turns back. The next time, there he is on the wall, an arm braced inside a crack in the rock, only his strength and skill between him and a final plunge, while we in the audience watch stricken by terror and impotence.