Free Solo, rated PG-13
Free Solo is an Oscar nominated documentary about professional adventure rock climber Alex Honnold, who successfully climbed the imposing, nearly vertical 3,200-foot granite formation El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2017. Incredibly, Honnold climbs the imposing wall without any climbing equipment (ropes, etc.), which is known as free soloing. The film is directed by Jimmy Chin (Meru) and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhely (Meru), who along with the film’s producers Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill, received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for the film.
Honnold, now 33 years old, tells us that he is a loner and has lived in a van for nine years. We see a family photo of him climbing a wall, and hear that he started at a climbing gym at the age of 5. His parents divorced during his first year of college and he dropped out after that year. He comes across as driven, relationally distant, and yet likeable. Alex has had girlfriends, but honestly states that he will always choose climbing over girls. In this film, we meet a girlfriend, the likeable Sanni McCandless, who meets Alex at a book signing. (McCandless is now a “transition coach for outdoor-focused individuals who want to create more tailored, intentional lifestyles and find agency in their own lives”). In the film, Alex is never able to give Sanni what she truly needs in a healthy relationship – her expectations of him are met with disappointment. Maybe because growing up he never heard the world “love” nor was he ever hugged.The film includes interview clips with Alex’s mother, and we get the impression that whatever Alex achieves, it will never be good enough in her eyes. As a result, he pursues perfection that plays out in trying to free solo El Capitan. But that perfection will ultimately be like trying to fill a broken cistern that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)
We see Alex getting an MRI to see if it reveals anything about Alex that can explain his seemingly lack of fear. The MRI reveals that Alex experiences no activation of the brain’s amygdala when confronted with situations that trigger fear in others.
The film shows Holland’s intense mental and physical preparation for his climb of El Capitan. He fills up notebooks of each move he will need to make in the 3,200-foot climb. His life will depend on making the correct moves. He is in amazing physical shape and flexibility and is also a vegetarian.
The film includes some absolutely stunning, and nearly vertigo-inducing, camera work from drones, long-distance lenses and camera operators who were themselves scaling the side of El Capitan, supported by climbing ropes. As a result, we get an incredible perspective of what Holland is facing. We get close up views of Alex’s fingers holding on to small nubs of rock, his climbing shoes precariously balanced on any small piece of the wall, and his well-rehearsed moves which demonstrate his incredible Spider-Man like agility. Marco Beltrami’s musical score added a lot of the intensity to the film. I found myself with sweaty palms, unlike anything I’ve experienced this side of sitting through some bad turbulence on a plane. Actually, is there any “good” turbulence?
Content concerns include a small amount of adult language, including the abuse of God’s name. In addition, we see Alex and Sanni living together in the van and buying a home together in Las Vegas. Themes include living minimally, achieving goals, striving for perfection and relationships.
What are Christians to think of the incredible, but some would say very foolish, feat captured in this film? On the positive side, the film can inspire us to achieve great things, things that some might think impossible. In achieving such things, we can give all glory to God, who has enabled us to achieve these things.
On the other hand, the film makes no mention of God. We don’t see people praying for Alex as he begins his terrifying free solo climbs, although we do see that the film makers care about him, with long-lens cameraman Mikey Schaefer not able to look as he enters the most dangerous parts of the El Capitan climb. We are told that many free solo climbers have already died, falling to their death. This doesn’t seem to have an impact on Alex, and we can assume that one day we will hear of him falling to his death as well.
For Honnold, it is all about achieving his goal. In order to do so he needed to achieve near perfection, or he would fall to his death. He seems to have no concerns about death either, as in interviews he describes himself as a “militant atheist”.
When he reaches the top of El Capitan, he repeatedly states that he is delighted, “so delighted”. But ultimately, the achievement is somewhat hollow, as according to his official website, “he maintains his simple “dirtbag-climber” existence, living out of his van and traveling the world in search of the next great vertical adventure”. Holland has many sponsors, including The North Face, which we see prominently displayed throughout the film, along with Patagonia. He does good work with the money he makes from climbing, giving 30% of his income to his Honnold Foundation, an environmental non-profit which provides power in areas of the developing world.
Free Solo is an incredibly filmed and at times intense documentary. I saw the film in an IMAX theatre, which is the best place to see it, if possible. The film will be available on streaming sites and DVD on February 19.