“Each individual piece of the puzzle is thoughtfully crafted, but there’s something missing in the effort to put it all together.”
by Ken Bakely
The most memorable shots in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo are aerial views of large mountains. Beautiful images on their own, they’re rendered heart-racing when we see Alex Honnold climbing up the landforms without a harness. Free solo climbing is an activity so clearly dangerous and immediately life-threatening that you can’t help but be fascinated by the individuals that clearly have the rationality to painstakingly calibrate and plan every step and phase of their climbs, but, at least in Honnold’s case, still see the tremendous risk of even attempting the act as a simple mental roadblock that should be overlooked. He’s an arresting personality onscreen: a lanky, determined athlete who sees all routes as leading to the next summit, and compartmentalizes the entire rest of his life to make it as small as possible in comparison. Vasarhelyi and Chin follow him as he proceeds to free solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000 foot monolith in Yosemite National Park, with the goal of becoming the first person to undertake the task.
Yet the film is less of a study of the climb and more of an attempt to get inside Honnold’s mind (on a literal level, this is accomplished in a scene when he undergoes an MRI test, and somewhat predictably learns that his amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety, is not very responsive). Free Solo is a broad biographical sketch, combing through its subject’s life, work, and personal history. Aside from the staggering, overwhelming experience of watching Honnold climb, Vasarhelyi and Chin also look into the toll that his passion takes on his loved ones. Climbing is his life, and everything else falls bay the wayside. He’s so driven by this one passion that until he meets his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless – who convinces him that he has to lay down roots somewhere – he lives out of an RV and eats directly from his cookware with the spatula. More seriously, here’s also the notion that he has to go the extra mile to realize how much extra empathy is needed to maintain meaningful personal connections. His friends and family bear the partial weight of what he does, because they’re so close to losing him on such a frequent basis, but there are times during interviews when he flatly refuses to grapple with this fact.
Free Solo neither condemns Honnold’s occasionally callous demeanor nor raises his thrilling accomplishments to mythologized, folk-hero status. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging portrait of someone who has long ago made the choice to forgo just about everything in pursuit of this one thing. Each individual piece of the puzzle is thoughtfully crafted, but there’s something missing in the effort to put it all together. Vasarhelyi and Chin begin the film already far removed from the idea that there’s any single answer to why Honnold climbs thousands of feet in the air without any safety mechanisms, and it’s admirable that they present us with the facts of this situation from the get-go, only slowly filling in the rest of his story later. However, with the movie’s efforts to evaluate his journey in a myriad of ways – from past, to present, to future; and both introspective self-assessment and the feelings of the other people in his life – it never quite convinces us that we’re seeing as comprehensive a profile as it wants us to believe.
It’s no coincidence that, when Honnold isn’t climbing, Free Solo’s most compelling sequences revolve around his friends and relatives considering how their relationships with him have developed. His mother reflects on his upbringing and family history. Co-director Chin, already a friend of Honnold’s, struggles with the possibility that this project means he may end up filming his death. And McCandless recognizes that as his first long-term partner, he may let her into his life more than he has for anyone else, and that entails significant possibilities as both a further emotional risk and a chance at helping him forge the kind of lasting connections that he otherwise avoids. These are the kinds of varied perspectives that add much-needed context to the man on the mountain, and give us a chance at a much clearer picture than his own attempts at trying to get a general audience to understand his way of thinking. But with the film cutting constantly between these moments, Honnold’s own commentary, and the actual footage of him on the mountain, there’s a resolute lack of clarity on how Vasarhelyi and Chin want to position their work. The last 20 minutes of the movie – footage of Honnold ascending El Capitan – are as stirring as anything from any movie this year, documentary or otherwise. Yet it’s the culmination of a less organized excursion. Though its best moments leave us spellbound, they never quite grow and congeal to form a picture as collectively encompassing as Honnold’s fascinating life all but demands.