Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Falling: Free Solo

Alex Honnold in Free Solo. (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Feature movies about mountain climbing generally fail because they feel the need to gin up an already dramatic situation and trumpet the themes of Man vs. Nature, the Indomitable Human Spirit, etc. The 2004 documentary Touching the Void understood that these themes were implicit in its telling of the ascent of two climbers up the face of the Andean mountain Siula Grande, and thus there was no need to make them explicit. Touching the Void did court controversy because it reenacted its true tale in the Alps, using actors who were also climbers, while an interview of the real climbers recounting their horrific experience provided the movie’s narration. The film was poised between a documentary and a feature film, and some cried foul. Those who did missed out on an amazing film-going experience.

The new film Free Solo, about the climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to “free solo” (climb without the aid of ropes or tools except his own hands and feet and a bag of chalk clipped to his back) the sheer face of Yosemite’s grand El Capitan mountain, a rise of about 3,000 feet, uses actual footage of Honnold’s climb, supplemented with Google Earth shots of the mighty peak to show us Alex’s path. It also shows us something of Alex’s life and the preparation needed to accomplish his goal. This Oscar-nominated documentary doesn’t have the artistic wonder that director Kevin Macdonald brought to Touching the Void, but El Capitan provides its own grandeur, and on a scale smaller yet perhaps equally awe-inspiring, so does Hannold.

The understated filmmaking (Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are the co-directors; Chin is also the principal cameraman, appearing in the film as he figures out which sections of the climb will be filmed and how) matches the reticence of its subject. Honnold is a chronic loner, son of a father (who died while Alex was still young) that Alex’s mother, a perfectionist French teacher who spoke only French to her American children, has diagnosed as having Asperger Syndrome. (We don’t learn anything about Alex’s sister, other than seeing her in a few photos.) Alex possesses ears that stick out from his tousled hair; dark, guarded eyes (at times he seems to have no pupils at all); a toothy grin rarely seen; and a taut, wiry frame that has been carefully honed to do what he loves best, mountain climbing. We also know, courtesy of an MRI study of Alex’s brain, that his amygdala doesn’t process fear the way a normal person’s does. He seems to lack a “fight or flight” instinct, remaining unruffled and clear-headed under intense stress.

He’s decided on this monumental, never-before-achieved feat just as a new complication has entered his life, a girlfriend, Sannie McCandless. Sannie knows that she comes second in Alex’s life, and she understands that he has to do this climb, however much it terrifies her. We also see Alex, wary and guarded for most of his life, begin to make room in his ascetic existence for another person. (He lives in a van, outfitted with a “hold board,” attached over the sliding door, which allows him to do pull-ups using only his fingers jammed in variously cramped and shaped depressions in the board.) He takes some of the money he’s earned from lectures, book-writing, and sponsorships and buys a house for the two of them in Las Vegas. This, despite a (literally) rocky beginning where, climbing together, McCandless misjudged a length of rope, causing Honnold to fall and suffer two compressed vertebrae. On a later climb, during the summer Alex hopes to achieve his free solo of El Cap, he suffers a severe ankle sprain also while climbing with Sannie. A friend baldly states to the camera what Alex must surely be thinking as well: “I’ve never seen him have a serious accident in his life, but now after meeting her, he’s had two.”

Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin on location during the filming of Free Solo. (Photo: Chris Figens/National Geographic)

I’ve described Honnold as a loner, but that’s not especially fair to the climbing community that surrounds and admires him. Tommy Caldwell is the world-renowned climber who is Alex’s friend and mentor, and the previously mentioned Chin and associate cameraman Mikey Schaefer clearly have a genuine love for Alex intermingled with their respect for his skills. (When Alex makes his attempt, Schaefer sits on the Valley floor, tracking Honnold with a powerful zoom lens. Mirroring our own reaction, he often turns away from what he’s seeing, so daring and dangerous is the climb.)

We see Honnold’s careful preparation for the ascent, as he goes over specific sections of the wall both with and without ropes, feeling exactly what outcroppings and toe-holds the seemingly smooth surface of El Capitan’s west face provides. At a particular point on the slab known as “Freeblast” among climbers, Alex describes how all that supports him is the toe of one foot on a small, barely discernible mound while fingers on one hand are pinching another such bump. From this position, Alex has to kick out his left leg, straight and perpendicular to his body, to find a seam he can then move to.

Jimmy Chin also illuminates the careful planning of the camera crew. In a vivid example of the “Observer Effect” (the scientific principle wherein the act of observation necessarily changes the nature of the observed), he muses about the possibility of dislodging a pebble at the wrong time, of the whirring of their drone camera distracting Alex at a crucial moment, or of the mere fact of being filmed pushing Alex to take chances he shouldn’t. This is on top of such natural distractions as birds suddenly flying out of a crevice. (In one preparatory sequence on the mountain, Alex and Jimmy are in a cloud of what seem to be wasps or bees. They appear oblivious, because, of course, they have to be.)

Throughout all of this is the immensity of El Capitan, rising out of the Yosemite Valley floor. The film is currently showing on IMAX screens, and on that vast expanse, when you see a shot of Hannold wedged in some crack, a 2,000-foot drop beneath him, your gut twists. It will be the rare audience member who doesn’t squirm at the vertiginous camerawork. But it also inspires a sense of astonishment at what both nature and an individual can achieve.

The movie would seem to be a paean to stoicism, the triumph of the individual over a body’s pain and a mind’s fear. Alex describes himself as a warrior, and the single-mindedness and self-denial required of his chosen profession, as well its ever-pervasive risk, certainly support his assessment. But were the film simply a glorification of the warrior spirit, it would be much less than what it is. As Alex accomplishes the impossible, we also see him become more trusting and open with Sannie. After a failed first attempt at the climb, Jimmy admits he feels better about the whole project, because he knows Alex is willing to stop if all is not right, and he’s not so sure that a younger Alex would have done so. But even as this film shows the changes in Alex, it never provides easy answers. Will Alex be satisfied accomplishing what no one has ever accomplished before, what his peers acknowledge as the greatest free solo ever done, or will he need to do something even more difficult, even more dangerous? Despite the growing commitment he’s made to Sannie, will both of them be able to live with what each asks of the other? Alex is a fingertip away from death when he’s doing what he loves, and in a sport where countless others have died, is it fair to ask someone he loves to sit by as he risks death again and again? The messy humanity that the film portrays is a small triumph that makes Alex’s mammoth physical triumph even more wondrous. Free Solo makes the inhuman human.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.

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