Film Review: ‘Free Solo’: Alex Honnold Is Spider-Man. Period

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
September 10, 2018 Updated: September 12, 2018

1h 37min | Documentary | 28 September 2018 (USA)

Free-solo rock climbing is the deadliest sport known to man. “Oh man, another climbing movie review?” Shhhh. Yes. This is good stuff.

I recently reviewed “The Dawn Wall,” about the hardest free climb ever—3,000 feet up Yosemite’s El Capitan, hanging off fingertips. “Free Solo” is a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold doing the exact same thing—minus the rope.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan, here about 2,000 feet off the deck, with no rope, in “Free Solo.” (National Geographic Documentary Films)

To give you a feel for climbing without a rope, here’s an excerpt from an essay titled “The Only Blasphemy,” by John Long, one of rock climbing’s most eloquent chroniclers:

“I glide into ‘coffin-zone’ altitude before I can reckon. Then, as I splay my foot out onto the slanting edge, the chilling realization comes that, in my haste, I’ve bungled the sequence, that my hands are crossed up and too low on that tiny flute that I’m pinching with waning power …  my foot starts vibrating and I’m instantly desperate, wondering if and when my body will freeze and plummet. … ‘Yeah, he popped—from way up there.'”

The Rock Star and the Groupie

Honnold’s the guy in the red shirt that you see on Facebook re-posts, standing on a 6-inch ledge, on Yosemite’s other monolith, Half Dome, 2,000 feet up, with no protective gear anywhere. This guy is the climbing world’s cutting-edge soloing phenom: the Michael Phelps of rock climbing. Like Phelps, there may never be another Honnold. And given the nature of his obsession, he may not be with us much longer.

Honnold’s a rock star, pun intended; more authentic than Mick Jagger. It’s a different kind of rock, but he’s just as skinny. Rock stars by definition get handed phone numbers by pretty girls.

And so “Free Solo” comprises two parts: 1) the presentation of the most death-defying athletic feat the world has ever seen, and 2) the classic tale of a pretty girl chasing an alpha male, and the ensuing battle of the sexes: to nest or not to nest.

The nesting question is, believe it or not, the more compelling aspect, so let’s get the first part out of the way.

“Free Solo” is predominantly documentation, utilizing cutting-edge technology, of a first-ever tour de force of unroped climbing—by a Mozart-genius-level climber.

Rock climber-filmmakers hang off the top of El Cap on ropes, dangling a few feet from Honnold, and putting you, the viewer, a vertical kilometer into the sky, alongside him, and allowing you to inspect, from inches away, the quarter-inch chalky ledges that Honnold’s hanging on to. Ropeless. Drone footage gives you the yawning-abyss perspective.

Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi won awards for their previous doc “Meru” (2015), about the hardest Himalayan ascent ever, and Chin is pretty much a genius-level climber himself. They manage to record, exhaustively, Honnold’s training process.

And that’s all regarding the climbing. No amount of yakking will convey the scope of the grandiosity of El Capitan, the hair’s-breadth closeness to certain death you’ll witness, and how gripping that is. A cameramen, down in El Cap Meadow, manning the giant telephoto lens, is stressed to the point of having to turn his back on his viewfinder, with words to the effect of: He’s having fun. Me? I’m done. Never doing this again.

What Possesses Him?

There’s an easy, if somewhat too facile answer to what makes Honnold tick: The fear center in his brain is numbed out, compared to the rest of us. His amygdala, like the Grinch’s heart, is two sizes too small (not actual science). He gets an MRI in the film, where they test for this, and that’s more or less the outcome.

What ties it all together is learning that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. Honnold may have some of that going on, including possibly some autism. His family’s extreme lack of emotional and physical connection growing up is telling. There’s an admitted, marked social ineptness. Also cluelessness as to the ways of women. But then, that’s not uncommon among geniuses. And he definitely counts as one.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan, here about 2,000 feet off the deck, with no rope, in “Free Solo.” (National Geographic Documentary Films)

Honnold is still in what’s described in men’s work as the “ashes” phase. He lives in the dirt. Well, actually, he lives out of his state-of-the-art, climbing-outfitted-man-cave-extraordinaire van.

And it all looks pretty awesome from an unwashed, ambitious, young-man perspective. Normal even, until you see him prepare a meal and then unselfconsciously use the gigantic spatula he was cooking with as a fork. You think, “Time for a woman’s touch.”

So the facile answer—that he needs this level of death-defying activity to feel truly alive—establishes why he can do what he does. But, so … why? Possibly the same answer; and furthermore, the ability to do this type of climbing also inherently, inevitably, morphs into a formidable addiction. Then add to that the fact that he’s the only one on the entire planet Earth who can do this. It’s every athlete’s wildest dream come true.

To Nest or Not to Nest

Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, gave him her number at a book signing. She’s pretty and smart. Unfortunately for her, Honnold’s at the peak of his climbing game. And isn’t this how it usually goes? Girl meets boy; girl is attracted to boy’s alpha status, feels he would make a good baby. They hook up. He feels feelings (albeit utilitarian and autistic-sounding in his case: “She’s small, she fits in the van”).

She starts the nesting process: They buy an apartment near Las Vegas. Next thing you know, she’s back in the van, fuming, because while she got down on her knees and tape-measured the floors, he stood around unchivalrously, taking potshots at her measuring technique.

If Honnold wasn’t so quirkily cute and supremely talented, he would be an incel (millennial-speak for “involuntarily celibate”). He’s clueless: “Oh, you’re not mad anymore.” “Yes, I totally am.” “No, you’re not; you’re coming out of it.” She’s totally not coming out of it. This does not bode well.

This kind of domestic scenario goes on nowadays because of what I like to think of as “High Plains Drifter Syndrome.” Clint Eastwood movies don’t play well in India. Indians have no idea what that lone man is doing, riding around on his horse, by himself, shooting people.

To make Clint’s characters understandable to Indians, scriptwriters have to give the characters brothers and sisters, a wife, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Then the characters make sense, with that big family community accompanying him through the high plains desert.

Without familial and community pressure to enforce traditional values, a supremely talented young American man nowadays will never voluntarily give in to nesting. Normally, I would side with him and advise her to find a more easily domesticated beta male. But in Honnold’s case, his passion is too deadly.

And he might be ever-so-slowly losing the requisite humility to keep his winning streak (literally) alive. It’s a powerful juxtaposition to see his conversations with Peter Croft, now a Yosemite Valley elder and one of the premier free soloers of all time. Croft never takes his soloing public. The respect and awe and thankfulness never leave him. He’s old school, John Muir-like. Of all the famous free soloers, he and Honnold are the only ones left still alive. Honnold would do well to take a page from Croft’s climbing book, if he hasn’t already. And if not, McCandless should nudge him in that direction. 

Alex Honnold after topping out on El Cap in “Free Solo.” (National Geographic Documentary Films)

‘Free Solo’
Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Rated: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 28
Rated 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch