The APAHM Project Day 13: Free Solo
Film: Free Solo
Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Release: 2018
Where to watch: Disney + or Hulu
Why it made the list:
This film piqued (or peaked, like a mountain haha) my interest when I saw Vasarhelyi and Chin accept the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019. The two are married in real life and now having seen “Free Solo,” I can see why this dynamic duo took home the prize.
I‘m not a huge documentary person. But if I watched them for class or an assignment, I loved them. So today I am consciously choosing to watch a documentary made by 2 Asian filmmakers about a man climbing a mountain.
But it was so much more than that.
I also don’t know much about climbing, so I thought “Free Solo” was about someone finding liberation through climbing. And I guess in a way that’s what this was. Alex Honnold is a free solo climber which actually means he climbs tall, often dangerous, cliffs/mountains/etc. without the use of any ropes or holds. All he has is a chalk bag.
I got bit by the climbing bug around the holidays and really enjoyed bouldering, which is climbing up an 8-10 foot wall without a harness. I have a fear of falling, not heights, so this was perfect for me and I felt secure knowing there was an extremely thick pad to catch me if I fell. There was something very empowering about using my body strength to lift my whole body weight up a wall, so I understand to a very small degree why Honnold finds free soloing so exciting. Just think of this film as bouldering times 1,000,000.
The documentary follows Honnold and his preparation to climbing El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. The rock formation is roughly 3,000 ft tall. Along this journey, everyone, including his friends, colleagues, and girlfriend all hope and wish he gives up the pursuit, but Honnold is determined. He actually gets injured a few times while practicing the best routes. But El Cap is Honnold’s Moby Dick. It is all he is trying to do, he’s not concerned about his girlfriend or his mom, he treats death lightly, his mind is laser-focused on the best way to get to the top.
Chin and his camera crew are all climbers and friends of Alex as well, and as they film Honnold, they also question what part they are playing in the success, or more likely failure, of their friend’s pursuit. Are they distracting? Are they putting pressure on him? Are they someone affecting the nooks and crannies on the path? And the most important question is, if Honnold falls to his death, is it their fault? When Honnold announces he’s ready to attempt the climb free solo, he freezes on the way up and decides to bail.
Chin and Honnold
In that time Honnold and his girlfriend deepen their relationship. And kudos to her for being supportive while wrestling with her concern for Honnold’s life. His girlfriend also struggles with Honnold not expressing his feelings with words and putting climbing above everything else, her included. This was such an integral part of the documentary because Honnold and his dreams have such an effect on those who care about him. No one wants to get in the way of his dream and what makes him happy, but they don’t want him to fatally fall. Honnold, who seems to not notice people’s emotions as easily, can maybe begin to consider these people as he climbs.
A few months have passed and the camera crew is nervous as Honnold pursues his second free solo attempt on El Cap. Using extremely long lenses, drone cameras, and a special microphone in Honnold’s chalk bag, they watch in anticipation and anxiety as Honnold does the impossible: he makes it to the top (insert Jurassic Park/Jeff Goldblum gif here, you know the one I’m talking about). And in just under 4 hours. It is something so incredible to watch. The score and the shots of the extremely steep angles really make you anxious. My palms were sweating, my body was tight, my heart was racing. Even though you probably know he’s either going to make it or quit, you still feel all this anticipation and nerves.
The film does an excellent job of making you feel all the right emotions, whether it’s through score or heartfelt interviews. The film shows the determination and physical and mental strength that goes into conquering a beast like this. And whether he recognized it or not, the support of his friends and family played a big part too. Honnold gives off the idea that he would be able to do this without anyone giving him emotional support, but I don’t think that’s true. Going through life without someone to celebrate your successes and get you through your failures is an extremely lonely life to live.
Does it deserve to stay on the list?
This was a great documentary, and featured a gripping and interesting topic. I had no idea what free soloing was, or who Honnold was. I don’t think the film glorified or romanticized free soloing, which is extremely dangerous. If anything it discouraged me from ever attempting to climb anything, rope or not, even a fraction of that size. The film was well done, it had emotion, determination, and a happy ending with a great score. I really liked how they incorporated the filmmaking process for something like this and that Chin voiced his concerns for his friend, which was more important to him than him making the film. For now, I think I will stick to my indoor bouldering on the easy tracks and just imagine I’m climbing El Cap with Honnold instead.