Cinematic Releases: Free Solo (2018) - Reviewed

"There's no room for error; you have to do it perfectly. Imagine you're competing in an Olympic sport--at the Olympics, against the best of the best--and if you don't score a perfect 10.0, you die." 

As dawn broke over the Lost Palms Oasis Trail in Joshua Tree National Park, I stared up at the sheer terra-cotta face of the boulder in front of me, streaks of ochre and amber dazzling from the rays of the rising sun. I took a last deep breath for steely resolve, barely conscious from the nearly sleepless night in my tent on a mattress pad that kept deflating. The modern sport of bouldering was invented by a professor of fractal geometry, I half-heartedly reassured myself. He could see patterns in the crevices that no one else could. Hey, I'm good at math! This is the way one's brain works deprived of coffee, dependent only on Clif Bar caffeine gummies for reason and logic. As could be expected, I chalked up, hoisted myself, and promptly ate shit. 

Alex Honnold is, at only 33, the world's most famous and accomplished free soloist, and only seemingly as imprudent (he is, in fact, a carefully calculating risk taker) as I was in my moment of glory. Not content to merely summit the world's most dangerous cliff faces with a rope and a harness, free soloists eschew all safety equipment--using only their bare hands, climbing shoes, and a little bit of chalk to quite literally cheat death. On June 3, 2017, when Honnold free soloed the 3,200-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the New York Times gave him a front page feature, calling the death-defying ascent "incomprehensible" and "perhaps the single greatest feat in the history of human athleticism." One can only call these claims an understatement when watching Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's and Jimmy Chin's transcendent Free Solo, the record of Honnold's journey from dream to summit. 

The film opens with a vertigo-inducing drone shot, panning out from Honnold as he clings precariously to a sheer granite wall, with treetops and certain death beckoning thousands of feet below. Already one of the world's most accomplished climbers and free soloists by his mid-twenties, he had long been toying with the idea of summiting El Capitan ("the most impressive wall on earth and the center of the rock climbing universe") before setting out to conquer the impossible. 

Professional alpinist, photographer, and filmmaker Jimmy Chin enlists a crew composed exclusively of fellow climbers to document the journey, though never with a clean conscience. It is mentioned early on by Honnold's friend and mentor Tommy Caldwell (himself the first to summit the "Freerider" route on El Cap's Dawn Wall, albeit with ropes) that nearly every professional free soloist is now dead. What, exactly, are the ethics of filming something so inherently dangerous? How would you feel to watch your frame fall out of the frame, literally to his death? What if your mere presence inspired "Kodak courage," or if the glint of sunshine reflecting off your lens caused the subject to slip and fall? 

Honnold is a witty and endearing documentary subject. He has a winning, easy smile, and the awkward bearing of a gangly adolescent Dr. Spock. It's mentioned early on that his now-deceased father suffered from Asperger syndrome and was an emotionally distant parent, which leads to easy speculation as to whether Alex may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. He is often unintentionally hilarious in his blunt honesty, either when fielding interview questions or interacting with his doting girlfriend Sanni McCandless, but it's not a stretch to ask if someone who chooses this lifestyle must have something legitimately wrong with his brain. (This question is answered when an MRI identifies a nearly unresponsive amygdala, confirming that Honnold requires many more times the stimulation than a normal person to trigger a fear response.) 

Mercifully, the film spends little time wrestling with such banal questions as "why do you do it, because it's there?" It's at its most gripping when capturing Honnold at his most focused and in the practice of his craft. You could hear a pin drop in the theater as he balances on his pinkie toes and thumbs, thousands of feet above certain death, karate-kicking and hurling himself from invisible crevice to invisible crevice. This is all the more terrifying because we watch him slip and fall from these same pitches while safely harnessed with a rope on practice runs, and we know in all likelihood that we could just as easily have watched him fall and die. 

Yet he didn't. Alex Honnold achieved the impossible and in so doing, may well have come closer to God on the face of that wall on that late spring day than any human ever has. His pursuit of the human sublime is one of the most magnificent feats ever captured on film, and if you've ever so much as had a pulse, his pursuit of his passion will resonate to the very core of your soul. Do not miss this under any circumstances, and see it on the biggest screen you can find. 

--Eugene Kelly