Outside Magazine undersells Free Solo when it calls it the best-ever film about climbing. It’s beyond that. It’s the best documentary about sports of any kind.
Alex Honnold, whose stunning free solo climb of Yosemite’s El Cap last year is the sun around which Free Solo revolves, explained why the film works. I caught up to him in harried fashion during a recent barnstorming blitz with NYC media. He said, succinctly, of Free Solo, “It’s darkly comic. It’s about love and death.”
He’s exactly right.
I’ll be careful here not to give away too much, since this is a film you need to see for yourself, save to say that there’s just enough climbing drama to have made me want to bring chalk, not popcorn, into the dark theater where I saw an early screening. My palms were gushing sweat. This is no mean feat for a flick with an already well-known plot. Honnold free solos El Cap. He lives. We knew that.
Jimmy Chin, the director of Free Solo, said there’s absolutely nothing about the way the film came out, about its content, pacing, and rope-free tension, that shouldn’t be credited to his wife, director and filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and to editor Bob Eisenhardt. During a Q+A after the screening Chin said, “I learned a long time ago my wife is a lot smarter than me.” That’s not just being a wise husband; Vasarhelyi is a more-experienced director, and he explained that even though she’d just given birth to their second child when they started filming, she was constantly coming back to the “set,” meaning Yosemite, to shoot new scenes, flying in from New York, then flying straight back home.
Those scenes weren’t on the rock. And they weren’t about climbing.
They were in Honnold’s van, where he and his then-new girlfriend Sanni McCandless, were living for most of the multi-year production. McCandless is the pivotal character in the story. Her romance with Honnold is the film’s crux. Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained that none of his films were about spies or murder, or wartime heroes. They’re almost all love stories. The only difference with Free Solo is that this isn’t fiction, it’s fact.
I asked Honnold if it was difficult to have a film crew constantly buzzing around, on the rock, in his van, like peeping Toms, and especially bearing witness to the blossoming romance and lover’s feuds. (At one point Honnold bluntly says onscreen that McCandless “has climbed, but she’s not a climber.”) It was a bother, Honnold agreed. “Eventually we got used to it. They’re just bludgeoning you into submission.”
But throughout we never see Honnold submit.
Not to the bystanders and film crew. Barely even to the rock. He speaks generally of the rest of humanity (and, loosely, of McCandless, too) constantly on the hunt for comfort, for an easier path through life. Then he paints a big, black, billboard-sized X through that notion. He says, “Nobody achieves anything great in the world by being happy and cozy.”
This diaristic aspect is what makes Free Solo so great. Fiction can’t speak directly to the viewer with such blunt, naked honesty.
Of that ceaseless drive, Honnold said during our interview that he knows that it might turn people off, “And I’m not sure if that’s good or not, but to me, anybody who feels like they should be better at their profession should fear mediocrity. Try to do it well. Or just don’t bother.”
Chin makes it clear in the film, though, that documenting Honnold’s perfectionism was exhausting, in part because Honnold is literally wired differently. One scene shows Honnold going through a brain scan to show how he processes fear—or doesn’t. Chin called Honnold “an anomaly in a peer group of anomalies.” Chin explained that fellow climbers like Tommy Caldwell, who features strongly as the wingman in the story, “Don’t get Alex. I don’t get him.”
The part Chin, Caldwell, and the rest of that peer group of anomalies don’t get is Honnold’s comfort with potential imminent death.
Honnold says rather coldly in the film that people wouldn’t know what to do if he died, but he told me, “They’d go on, that’s what people do. I mean, honestly, no matter what, no matter the emotional component, people just continue living. It might be cold but it’s real.”
While Honnold can somehow make peace with that fact, for Chin and the rest of the film crew that weight is the dark undertow in nearly every scene—you’re sweating watching because there are so many near misses and so many witnesses.
Chin says that he had to second-guess if he even wanted to make the movie, fearing he would be filming as Honnold fell out of the frame to his death. After the screening I saw, when an audience member asked if Chin was uncomfortable with a project that might stop before it ever got started, Chin guffawed and said, “Every day we carried the burden of watching Alex on a screen. Everyone, the crew, all his climbing partners, friends—afraid.” Chin mentioned one heavy moment that nobody had the courage to film, when the entire crew was bawling at that what-if fear, cracking under the pressure, even as Chin said they were “constantly trying to shield Alex from the weight of what we were feeling.”
And the night before Honnold went for it?
“We had to prepare two press releases,” Chin said. “One if he made it. One if he didn’t.”
As for Honnold and McCandless’s romance constantly under the microscope, and what the film is really about, Honnold says it was a lot like having the cameras on him while climbing. “I’m like, you know, in some ways, it’s kind of nice because [maybe] it crumbles, then I’m like ‘sweet,’ you know, it’s not meant to be.”
Honnold then clarifies: “I’m all about failing quickly. Kind of a start-up mentality. Let’s dive in. If it’s good we’ll find out very fast and if it’s bad you find out fast and move on. There you go, love advice from Alex Honnold.”
And, as a matter of fact, life advice, too, from the best documentary film star of 2018.
Photos by Jimmy Chin