he’s so high

at the movies: free solo

The first time Alex Honnold set out, without ropes or harnesses (what climbers call a “free solo”), to climb the sheer granite face of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot rock formation in Yosemite Valley, it was four in the morning on a fall day in 2016. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi were there too, filming a documentary about Honnold. We see Chin struggle for an inspirational soundbite as he watches Honnold begin his ascent, an attempt at perhaps the most difficult athletic feat in human history. After a moment, Chin says “Let’s hope it’s a low-gravity day.” Yikes.

That stark scene, the beginning of a climb Honnold eventually abandons (he “just wasn’t feeling it” that day), serves as a microcosm of the rest of this stunning, perceptive documentary about the now thirty-three-year-old climbing superstar. Throughout, his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, his childhood idol-turned-trainer, Tommy Caldwell, and the filmmakers themselves, his longtime friends, alternate between terrified bafflement and total confidence as Honnold recedes behind a wall of single-mindedness and what he calls “warrior spirit.” (The film offers a possible clinical explanation, when a trip to an MRI machine proves his fear center is almost totally inactive).  Sanni, especially, continually tries to reach him, and he continually retreats. Her desperation is well-founded as the threat of tragedy is ever-present in this story. Caldwell matter-of-factly informs Honnold that all who have dedicated their life to free soloing is now dead. During Honnold’s second try at El Cap, Sanni tearfully confides that “it’s really hard to understand why he wants this.” Ditto.

Though his semi-unfeeling reticence frustrates his friends, Honnold is a fascinating and even close-to-likeable figure. Chin compares him to Dr. Spock, but he reminded me of Mark Zuckerberg by way of the Addams Family. Mocking his previous girlfriends’ concern for his safety, he lisps, “We really care about you,” then scoffs, “No, you don’t. If I perish (he actually says “perish”), you’ll find somebody else.” Maybe so, but nobody like Alex Honnold—with his mop of dark hair, jet-black eyes and what looks to be an eighteen-pack, the climber could pass for Kylo Ren with a carabiner. In other words, he’s made for the movies.

And this is a great one. Free Solo manages to have its cake and eat it too in almost every respect; it’s a fair, complete, clear-eyed portrait of a man who in his circles has inspired a kind of messianic obsession, but it’s also a diagram of a sport-cum-death-wish and a near-impossible climb. The pieces fall into place perfectly. It’s the kind of structurally ambitious real-life story that lures feature producers to the door. Its intimacy is balanced with some of the most sweeping, heart-in-your-mouth visuals on this side of the Mission: Impossible franchise (Honnold, for what it’s worth, does his own stunts without even being a Scientologist.)  

But the film’s greatest strength is that it interrogates its very existence. A cameraman worries that the crew will dislodge a rock and send Honnold free-falling to his death. Talking with another of his idols, the free soloer Peter Croft, Honnold swallows hard when Croft tells him it’s alright to make the climb, as long as you’re doing it “for the right reasons.”  Cue a pointed look at the camera crew. Like Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s 2016 documentary Weiner, Free Solo eviscerates high-minded rhetoric about flies on walls. When that “wall” is a precipitous monolith twice the height of the Empire State Building, objectivity kind of falls away.

But Honnold doesn’t—in spring 2017, with remarkable speed and nary a hiccup, he completes a three-hour-and-fifty-six minute ascent (he’s since set three further speed records on El Cap with equipment, and made it up in an hour and fifty-eight minutes this June). In the movie’s final scenes, it’s his staggering, unshakeable professionalism that comes through, perhaps even more than his athleticism. After the climb, he heads down to do some pull-ups in his van. No use losing daylight.

Perhaps the most piercing insight of Free Solo is its refusal to pretend achievements change achievers; the next hurdle is always more enticing than the last one was satisfying. In the final scene of the film, Honnold reflects smilingly that his actions may inspire “some kid” to find the bigger, more terrifying mountain to climb. But whoever it is, it won’t be him, right? “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe.” Cut to Sanni, halfway between shock and dismay. What next?