Early in Free Solo, the film's subject, free climber Alex Honnold, goes in for an MRI and discovers this his amygdala shows little or no activity. If you're not familiar with the parts and mechanics of the human brain, the amygdala is an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei deep within the brain that is central in processing emotional responses, including fear and anxiety. The fact that Honnold's amygdala showed almost no activity when compared to a typical human brain goes a long way toward explaining-especially for people like myself who are deeply fearful of heights-how he can endure climbing thousands of feet up sheer rock faces with no ropes or any other form of safety. As a talk show host asks him in the film's opening scene, one tiny slip, one minute mistake would result in his depth. "You seem to understand this," he replies.
Co-directed by the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, Free Solo follows Honnold, an unassuming-looking young man in his early 30s with shaggy hair, big ears, and soft eyes, as he prepares for and then executes a stunning free solo climb of El Capitan, a granite monolith in Yosemite National Park that reaches more than 3,000 feet from base to summit. Prior to Honnold, no one have ever attempted to free solo climb of its sheer granite face, which is precisely what made it so alluring to him. For Honnold, climbing is literally his life. Living out of a Dodge Ram ProMaster van since his early 20s, he has dedicated himself to the athletic feat of ascending daunting rock faces without aid or safety measures, trusting in the strength and dexterity of his body and the security of the gaps, ledges, and crevices he can grip with his hands and feet. His life's pursuit seems somehow inhuman; it is hard not to think that humans were not meant to do such things, yet there he is, climbing up vertical rock faces in seemingly impossible fashion. And he is not alone, as the film makes clear. Solo and free solo rock climbing is an endeavor pursued by many, but perfected by few, which is what makes Honnold such a star within that world.
Much of the film documents Honnold's daily life, which is both mundane and fascinating in the way everything he does is geared toward his climbing life. A strict vegetarian with an intense exercise regimen, Honnold lives out of his van for convenience, as it allows him to travel all around the country with ease. His unmoored life is constantly at odds with his relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who loves him and is in awe of his pursuits (she met him when she approach him at a book signing), but nevertheless clearly wants him to come off the ledge, so to speak, or at least back away from it a bit. We see them buy a house in Las Vegas, although he spends precious little time there, and at one point they have an intense conversation in his van in which they debate whether or not he has any obligation to minimize his chances of death because of his relationship with her. Not surprisingly, he feels no such obligation, which he tells her in a starkly matter-of-fact way. One imagines that his amygdala remained silent the whole time.
Free Solo has another important dimension, as well, which is the presence of the documentary crew. Co-director Jimmy Chin, himself a professional climber-turned-filmmaker, is prominently featured throughout the film, as he and Honnold discuss the effect that the cameras will have on his climbing, not to mention the distinct reality that, if he were to fall to his death as many free solo climbers have done in the past (including one while the documentary was being shot), it would be captured on video. The film's stunning, vertiginous shots of Honnold climbing were accomplished by professional climbers anchoring themselves to the rock face at various intervals to get the best possible shot of Honnold doing his thing. Cameras with massive telephoto lenses on the ground capture his tiny figure moving along the face of the rock wall (computer graphics show us the zig-zagging routes he takes, all of which he maps out ahead of time before dropping the ropes), while drones hover overhead to capture the otherwise impossible overhead shots. The film's opening image, in fact, is a high-angle shot that moves out from the summit to find Honnold's tiny form clinging to the rock face, the ground seemingly miles below him. The film excels at giving us some sense of the sheer physicality and absolute danger of Honnold's achievements, conquering gravity and nature by battling the former while ascending the latter.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © National Geographic Documentary Films
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Pennsylvania Sun news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.