Watching Oscar-nominated documentary film “Free Solo”, which also won the People’s Choice documentary award when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in last year, was a pretty terrifying experience to me due to my longtime fear of heights. There are a number of vivid, intense moments which bring us very close to one of the most perilous and challenging attempts in the history of rock climbing, and you will surely wince at times if you are afraid of high places just like me.
The documentary mainly revolves around Alex Honnold, a young rock climber who has been known well for his many successful rock climbing attempts. Since he became interested in rock climbing during his childhood years, he has devoted himself to it for many years, and he usually prefers to perform free solo climb, which is quite dangerous and demanding for good reasons. Without rope or any other particular gear to protect him, except a pouch containing fine powder for his bare hands, he climbs up alone those steep vertical rock walls of thousands of meters high, and he does not seem to be particularly scared even though he is well aware of that dreadful possibility of making a wrong move and then getting himself killed.
In 2016 Spring, Honnold decided to try a free solo climb on El Capitan, a huge granite rock in the Yosemite National Park, California. Nobody had ever succeeded in performing a free solo climb on El Capitan, but he had been quite obsessed with climbing that rock someday, and it looked like he was finally ready after successfully performing his free solo climbs on many other notorious rocks such as Half Dome, another notable rock in the Yosemite National Park.
We observe how Honnold patiently and thoroughly prepared for his free solo climb on El Capitan step by step. For instance, he climbed up El Capitan several times along with his colleague Tommy Caldwell for getting himself accustomed to every detail of its climbing route, and we later see him recording these details on his small notebook along with the exact physical movements to be performed during his free solo climb. Although Honnold and Caldwell were equipped with ropes and other safety gears during that time, there are some brief but striking moments conveying to us what might go wrong at every point during his free solo climb, and these moments will surely make your body tightened from time to time.
As following Honnold’s quest, directors/co-producers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who previously made acclaimed documentary film “Meru” (2015) together, wanted to capture Honnold’s free solo climb as closely and vividly as possible, but then they and their crew members, most of whom are experienced climbers, came to face obstacles and dilemmas during the shooting. While they could handle some demanding technical issues involved with cinematography and sound recording, they did not want to cause any interference or distraction during Honnold’s free sold climb, and they certainly worried a lot about the worst possible situation for them and Honnold.
However, Honnold was only concerned about whether this shooting process would affect his confidence and concentration, while not so worried about the considerable possibility of his death. During one amusing moment in the documentary, we see him getting an MRI scan on his brain, and we subsequently hear later that his amygdala in the brain is significantly less active, which means that he is inherently less susceptible to fear compared to others.
As he frankly tells to us, Honnold is not a very social person just like his father (it is suggested that his father had Asperger’s syndrome, by the way), but he sometimes works for a non-profit organization which helps those poor people in the developing countries around the world, and he has recently been in a stable relationship with a young woman named Sanni McCandless, who is not a very good climber but supports her boyfriend’s aspiration nonetheless. As he became more serious about his relationship with her, Honnold came to settle in a suburban area of Las Vegas instead of continuing to live in his small van as before, and we accordingly get a sweet moment as watching them doing some shopping at a local mall.
Meanwhile, Honnold’s quest was continued despite a series of setbacks. He happened to get himself injured twice, and the mood subsequently became gloomier when the death of a fellow climber was reported. When he tried to perform a free solo climb on El Capitan several months later, he did not feel that right for some reason during the early stage, so he had no choice but to give up and walk away from El Capitan.
Eventually, Honnold attempted to climb up El Capitan again in June 2017. It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that he succeeded in the end, but the last 20 minutes of the documentary is tense and breathtaking to say the least, and you will come to marvel again at how fearlessly single-minded Honnold is – and how skillfully Chin and Vasarhelyi and their crew did their job with considerable care and attention. While serving us numerous wide landscape shots as required, they never lose the palpable sense of enormous risk and challenge surrounding Honnold, and it goes without saying that the expected finale of the documentary is dramatically cathartic.
Overall, “Free Solo”, which recently won the Best Documentary award at the British Academy Film Awards, is worthwhile to watch for its many unforgettable moments, and it is definitely one of the most memorable documentary films of last year. I still cringe as reflecting on what I observed from the documentary, and I am glad that I am usually content with watching mountains and rocks from the distance without any particular urge to climb them.