Free Solo (2018), the documentary by the married climber duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about Alex Honnold’s successful quest to be the first person to scale up the vertical face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2017 alone and without ropes or tools, is a vertiginous puzzle both visually and conceptually.
How to accomplish this daunting task is the first puzzle. It turns out free soloing takes massive preparation, to the point where Honnold has memorized not only every bodily position he must assume at every point of the ultimately almost four-hour-long climb that begins just before dawn, but also how to get from one position to the next. Close-ups on the wildest parts of the climb, where handholds aren’t big enough to accommodate a whole thumb and footholds are more mirage than reality, more than adequately let us into his headspace. The feat is, in essence, a four-hour game of vertical Twister in which one wrong move leads to a gravity-assisted death.
The second puzzle is why a person would want to do it. The film finds its way into Honnold’s psyche through the uncanny emotional disconnect that enables his climbs but also makes it maddeningly hard for girlfriend Sanni McCandless to maintain a relationship with him. Tracing back to his childhood (of course) reveals a probably autistic father and a perfectionist mother; coupled with his not uncommon self-denigration and expressed conviction that a successful free solo is the closest thing to perfection, one gets a sense of the demons that drive him. Elsewhere, as recounted by Kevin Corrigan in a fascinating piece on the ethics of the film, Honnold has revealed that he probably has depression, something only hinted at here.
One last puzzle: How should such an intimate and isolated activity, a pure communication between man and mountain, be captured on film? Chin and his crew, climbers all, frequently worry that their presence will nudge Honnold off kilter just enough to kill him, and indeed he aborts his first attempt, in 2016, because he can’t bear the thought of dying in front of his friends, a thought that their physical presence reminds him of. Though, it should be noted, he’s fine with dying on camera, as a couple of times during the successful climb he looks into a remote-controlled one. Seldom is documentary filmmaking so immediately high-stakes.