Free Solo (2018)

Free-Solo-LEAD2

Food: While spending the weekend at a cabin in north Georgia, it was important to have tons of comfort food. For me that looks like pasta. We had salad, consisting of avocado, tomatoes, vinaigrette, prosciutto and arugula, and loads of penne pasta with penne alla vodka sauce. We also made garlic bread. I had three servings and washed it all down with red wine.

Film: Free Solo is a documentary about the first man to free solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite. Free soloing, for those who may not know, is rock climbing without a safety rope, meaning that if you make a mistake, instead of falling with a rope to catch you and ease you down, you fall to your death. It is insanely dangerous and rarely done. Many climbers who are known free soloists end up dying early eventually, and El Capitan is a slick slab of giant rock that had never been free soloed by anyone before. This film is about how Alex Honnold changed that.

Honnold is a unique and introverted person, who spent something like eight years living inside a van, making a living off of climbing (he even wrote a book) and resisting romantic relationships. He is 33 years old, became a vegetarian for environmental reasons and takes diligent notes on every climb he does in a journal.

Made by his friend, director Jimmy Chin (and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), Free Solo takes an intimate look at not only Honnold’s climbing journey itself, but what type of person insists on risking their lives in such a way, which is what makes this documentary so engaging. Honnold seems to view the world as something to conquer, as a way to perform, as a constant effort to achieve perfection. He figures death is inevitable and he seems to shrug off the possibility that he could be next. His bigger concern was not actually falling to his death, but having to bear the thought of his friends witnessing it. “That would be messed up,” he said. There is also a segment where he receives an MRI which reveals that his brain does not process fear the same way the typical brain does – his amygdala basically just did not register fear at all. Not surprising.

There has been plenty of films about great men and women achieving almost inhuman feats, which are both inspiring and compelling and hard to believe. What makes this one really different is that it is impossible to not humanize Alex Honnold when you introduce his charming and spirited girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, to the story. There is a push and pull between them as she unabashedly loves him and tries her hardest to support him in doing what he feels like he needs to do in his life, while simultaneously knowing with the obvious fear of the risks he was taking. Not to mention the fact that their relationship was not enough at this point to stop him from continuing to take these risks. Allowing the cameras to capture these excruciatingly honest conversations between the two of them was brave in a way that climbing a mountain is not. There are two battles to overcome here and it was profound to explore the emotional dynamics that exists within the world of extreme adventurers and their loved ones. Sanni also gave the audience a more accessible point of view.

With projects like this, the filmmakers face the difficult challenge of showcasing an awe-inspiring undertaking without encouraging the act of free soloing or other reckless and dangerous thrill-seeking behavior. Honnold is approached by several of his friends who tip toe around serious conversations about his choice to attempt this, and attempt to reassure him that no one wants him to feel any pressure to do this climb. I think only true rock climbers can say whether or not they successfully teetered this stance.

Free Solo is an extraordinary documentary, exploring the meticulous emotional and physical preparation required for a climb like this, and is done in such a way that it can still resonate with mass audiences.

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