Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.
Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.
Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.
In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.
So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.
But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?
He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.
And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.
Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.
Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.