Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
“Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.”
So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.
Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.
In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.
That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.
Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenge of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.
Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.
Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.