Free Solo Movie Review
As I forced my wife to watch Free Solo, a movie so offensive to everything she stands for—that high heights should be avoided at all costs—she took solace in the fact that the sweat-inducing nature of the National Geographic documentary would have no emotional or psychological effect on her, because she cared little about whether the subject of the film, Alex Honnold, lives or dies.
She isn’t callous; in fact she is the most caring person I know (okay, maybe more about cats than people), but her general philosophy toward a movie about a guy who opts to climb El Capitan without ropes or any second chances is that any person who chooses to do such a thing is an idiot.
And Honnold is an idiot. He isn’t stupid, but most people on this Earth have a natural instinct to take at least basic precautions against death. One of those precautions is to never climb a 3,000-foot cliff of sheer granite in the first place. The secondary precaution is, that if you do find yourself on the side of a cliff for unknown reasons… use a damn rope!
The fascinating thing about Free Solo, from the filmmakers behind Meru (and Honnold’s friends), is that the movie at least attempts to diagnose what drives Honnold to do the things he does, which not only is to climb cliffs in which one minor mistake would lead to his death but also in which he sees such a task as his only real purpose in life.
This is also the film’s singular weakness, its shyness—perhaps because of the closeness of the filmmakers (climbers themselves) to Holland or simply their fear that people want to watch rock climbing, not psychoanalysis—to really understand what the hell is off about this man. They poke around the edges, but what exactly is different about him than other people?
Honnold isn’t brave. It certainly takes courage to climb thousands of feet straight up without a rope, but Honnold makes it clear that he feels absolutely no obligation to anyone, whether it be his mom or his extremely forgiving girlfriend, to live a minute longer than what gravity determines. He literally says as much. He doesn’t fear death and it isn’t entirely clear if he really cares about anything else, including the people who care about him.
Even if the examination of his psyche, or his true personality (“my past girlfriends have said I have a personality disorder,” Holland says, and I believe it), is what makes Free Solo so interesting, the climax—when he does what you know he is going to do and you watch with bated breath and clammy hands despite knowing the outcome—is spellbinding.
Free Solo works on many levels. It is a feat of filmmaking, aided by the advent of drones, and a beautiful depiction of the scariest of rock climbing. But even if it doesn’t dive deep into Honnold’s mind, it is also a fascinating study of a person who is not like you or me. And far, far different than anything my wife can fathom, tolerate, or feel empathy for.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.