By: Paul Hunter, Practicum Reporter
Award-winning directors and husband-and-wife team Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have captivated audiences again with their intricate documentary following the journey of world-renowned rock climber, Alex Honnold. The documentary follows Honnold through his life, into a relationship, and up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park … unroped.
While claiming its spot as a transformative movie for climbing enthusiasts, the movie presents non-climbers with a display of what it means to transcend fear and move beyond perceived human capabilities. It also shows what it means to be in a relationship with a man who doesn’t believe in attachments — to location, objects, people, or even to life.
Recalling his early being, Honnold remembers not being hugged as a child. He recalls finding solace in nature and, because he was alone, that meant climbing without gear or a belay partner. He remembers always being asked by his parents why he didn’t do better, something that lead to his experiencing a “bottomless pit of self-loathing.”
This is the childhood that kicked off his record-breaking, 1,000+ free solo climbs and led him to the base of El Capitan on Saturday, June 3, 2017. It is also, possibly, what causes Honnold’s brain not to recognize or process fear like you and I. Some say his brain is super-human, while some say it’s broken.
The cinematography in “Free Solo” is characteristic of the work done by Vasarhelyi and Chin. Each camera angle is equally cunning and terrifying, both more than the last. Captivating and exhilarating footage leave theatergoers sitting on the edge of their seats, wiping the sweat from their palms. Gasps and jumps are close-to-guaranteed in scenes where Honnold hangs from exposed edges with his thumb and forefinger gripped onto a small indentation. These scenes are contrasted with tender moments he shares with Sanni McCandless, his now long-time girlfriend who has tasked herself with bringing the “real Alex” out of his shell by overcoming the obstacles of his attachment-void life.
The film takes on an eerie feel as cast members recall free-soloist friends who’ve died, some in expeditions they were on. They recall phone calls telling them about long-time climbing partners’ deaths. These stories come between flashes of Honnold’s obsessive training on El Capitan. Journals of his days on the crag contain scribbles that, even if deciphered, are gibberish to laymen. His logs are completely devoid of emotion; they are mechanical memories of the climb up Freerider, the route to the top of El Capitan. They are hundreds of sequential movements, descriptions of rocks, jumbled in the mess of the climbing vernacular. They almost don’t seem like English.
In an interview with McCandless, she opens up about how hard it is to be in a relationship with Honnold, but her interactions with him show otherwise. Their chemistry is undoubtable, and she holds her ground when Honnold pushes back. He describes their relationship as the longest-standing, most affectionate relationship in his life. When he talks about “the L-word,” Honnold emotionlessly states that he’s never used it before, not even with his parents. It only seems fitting, then, that as he’s descending El Capitan, the biggest feat of his life, he calls McCandless, thanks her for everything and tells her, “I love you.”