First Hit: This past year there were two documentary films about climbing El Capitan, and this one, Free Solo, scared me more than the other movie Dawn Wall, and both are worth a watch.
The fear factor in Free Solo is high because Alex Honnold climbs the 3,000 foot El Capitan wall at Yosemite using only his hands and feet, there are no ropes. In Dawn Wall, which I didn’t write a review of because it was a special presentation, was about climbing a part of El Capitan that’s never been scaled.
Alex has a different trigger level for fear than most people. We learn this because of his belief in his abilities, the neverending training schedule, his physical prowess, and the results of his brain MRI. The film does dive into his past, and we get some explanation about his perceived non-engagement with other people and where this fearlessness emanates.
How Alex was raised, and his diving into climbing as a way to engage with the world and express himself is told in flashbacks and interviews by his mother, girlfriend, and a few friends. The closest we get to see under the layer of his polite, engaging, yet perplexing personae is through his conversations with Stephanie McCandless (“Sanni”) who becomes Alex’s girlfriend and one who can stay with Alex’s aloofness and inward self-focus to find her place in his heart.
When the movie begins we learn that Alex has been living in a van for nine years and this lifestyle suits him as we get farther into the film – it is congruent with his personality. We watch him train; we watch him go up, and down El Capitan, with his closest friend Tommy Caldwell (Dawn Wall climber and star) who works with Alex to figure out and understand the pitches he’ll use on the climb.
Of course, we all know he makes it because there wouldn’t be a film about his falling off the mountain, but when he bails on one attempt, we wonder will he make another effort to do the climb. The climbing shots led by Jimmy Chin were fantastic.
Directors Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed this film with patience and elegance because it shows in the end product.
Overall: I felt his strength, joy, and fearlessness through my being afraid for him during the journey.