Vertigo sufferers need not apply to Free Solo, the latest documentary from husband-wife filmmaking team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru). This is evident from the first shot, which floats gently out over the edge of a cliff to capture professional climber Alex Honnold ascending a towering rock-face. The sheer drop below Honnold, and his seemingly Zen defiance of the death that would result from a single misstep, brings to mind an exchange from Steven Soderbergh’s Los Angeles neo-noir The Limey (1999): “What are we standing on?” “Trust?”
In this case, it’s Honnold’s trust that his lifetime of focused — though many would call it obsessive — mountaineering will see him through from ground to peak. His favorite way to climb is without the aid of ropes or other life-protecting gear, a practice termed “free soloing.” Is his love of this method courageous or psychotic? Six of one, half a dozen of the other, though Honnold’s extreme sporting, which he’s expanded into a lucrative profession, might better be defined by a simple mantra: “Don’t tell Mom.”
Honnold’s mother, Dierdre Wolownick, makes an appearance about midway through the film, speaking with the resigned clarity of a parent who has recognized that her child is going to follow his bliss, sanity and common sense be damned. And that’s the position we’re often in, nodding along with teeth-gritted, clammy-palmed forbearance as we watch Honnold prepare his biggest-ever free solo — scaling Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot granite behemoth El Capitan with nothing but a simple sportsman’s outfit and a bag of hand chalk. Of course he doesn’t tell his mother.
Chin and Vasarhelyi approach Honnold’s quest like a meta action movie, concerning themselves as much with the rehearsal of the climb, along the so-called Freerider route, as with the free solo itself. This helps us become familiar with some of El Cap’s (as it is nicknamed) most difficult sections, notably an area that mountaineers term the “Boulder Problem,” where you have a choice of either leaping from one part of the cliff face to the other, or doing a complicated karate-kick-like move to balance yourself and then shift, with more than a bit of contortion, between grips. Knowing what’s coming, and recognizing what has to be done within a minuscule margin of error, only increases the tension when the moment of truth arrives.
Honnold treats such challenges as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly might an especially intricate dance move — with a no-big-deal temperament that belies the mental and physical effort he expended to get to that point. And since El Capitan is effectively a stage tilted on its side, the consequences of gravity (that natural force to which country singer Tim McGraw croons a saccharine end-credits ode) are even more dire.
Brilliantly photographed by Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer, often from angles and positions you wouldn’t think possible, Free Solo never entirely escapes the trappings of a NatGeo-sanctioned doc. From the soaring score by Marco Beltrami to the pie-eyed awe often afforded its subject, this is in many ways a white-knuckle brand extension for Honnold above all else. Still, the film frequently treads into knotty territory. Chin appears onscreen several times to wonder at the ethics of filming his subject, whom he also considers a good friend, in what could very likely be his final moments. And this moral predicament extends to Honnold’s relationship with his new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless.
At one point, with a bit of a sociopathic glint, Honnold says that he’d always choose scaling a mountain over committing to a life-partner. And McCandless seems to fully grasp this dilemma, attempting, with much effort, to walk that fine line between commendable support and understandable apprehension. Her perspective helps to puncture the myth of Honnold’s feat as solely superhuman. There’s plenty of selfishness here as well, and if that doesn’t dim the glow of his achievement, it at least casts it in a much more sobering, down-to-earth light. Is one person’s precarious dream worth their significant other’s sustained torment? The question hangs there like, well, a man clinging to a precipice.
Production companies: Little Monster Films, Itinerant Media, Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation, National Geographic Documentary Films
U.S. distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films
Directors: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Cast: Alex Honnold
Executive producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Tim Pastore, Matt Renner
Producers: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Evan Hayes, Jimmy Chin, Shannon Dill
Cinematography: Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin, Mikey Schaefer
Editing: Bob Eisenhardt
Original score: Marco Beltrami
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
U.S. Sales: Cinetic Media
Sept. 5 3:32 p.m. Correction of Honnold’s mother’s name to Dierdre Wolownick