Free Solo

Review by Aimee Knight

Directed by

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Jimmy Chin

Starring

Alex Honnold Jimmy Chin Tommy Caldwell

Anticipation.

Why does this cinema smell pervasively of Lynx Africa?

Enjoyment.

This guy is like Spider-Man with more daddy issues.

In Retrospect.

A geological love letter to manspreading.

A climber’s quest to summit Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes takes on a troubling ulterior motive.

Alex Honnold is caught between a rock and a hard-on. He’s preparing to climb an egregious, 900-metre granite wall in Yosemite National Park, but his spoil-sport girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, won’t stop being emotionally invested in his health, safety and wellbeing. Or so goes the remit of Free Solo, a dizzying documentary about Honnold’s quest to become the first person to ever climb El Capitan sans safety gear. It’s a story of physical strength, emotional vulnerability (or a lack thereof) and the irrational exploits of humans hell-bent on conquering the existential futility of being.

When Free Solo starts, van life has been working out fine for Honnold, a thirtysomething world traveller who looks like a ripped Nathan Fielder, and lives off canned chilli and chalk dust. Early on, filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin posit that such an adventurous life is antithetical to having a girlfriend, never mind their subject’s rusty social skills or unwavering self-absorption (synonymous here with Olympic-level determination).

As the film unfolds, Honnold’s two competing quests – achieving exceptional athleticism and bare-minimum boyfriend points – seem to be mutually exclusive for the protagonist, the filmmakers and their collective friends. They’re all too ready to blame McCandless for their hero’s recent spate of injuries, as he trains for an act that has, in fact, killed many of their kindred climbers. Free Solo has no shortage of vertiginous scares, as Honnold and his underactive amygdala scale rock faces in North America and Morocco. Naturally, the cinematography is breathtaking, with due credit to the film’s eight rock climbing camera operators.

Recording also creates an intriguing conflict: could the crew’s presence be the true catalyst for Honnold’s angst? What’s the point of filming this feat if, becoming cognisant of a camera, our subject loses his foothold? At the pinnacle of narrative tension, with Honnold halfway up El Capitan, a drone-mounted camera leaves the man behind, and rises up to reveal the environmental splendour and terror that envelop him. As the dire possibilities of one misplaced finger sink in, Honnold’s lone red t-shirt disappears from view, a blip in the history of civilisation. Yet still he clings.

Critical and audience responses to Free Solo have referred to Honnold’s desire as ‘universal’ and his deed exemplary of the ‘human spirit’. This homogenises the manifold passions and objectives of humankind, and presumes every person walking Earth wants to assert power and position over the landscape. Traditionally, this impulse has been exercised primarily by privileged white men (El Capitan itself was dubbed such by Californian militia fighting Native Americans during the Gold Rush). Honnold’s story is no exception.

His performance of masculinity joins a time-honoured canon in which men stake their claim on similar territory. So what does it mean to root for a guy who can stare death in the eye, but can’t hold a tape measure to help his girlfriend furbish their first house together? Who lets his filmmaker buddies position his partner as the Yoko Ono of rock climbing? Free Solo isn’t a story about bravery, but fear, and not in the way it believes.

Published 12 Dec 2018

Tags: Alex Honnold

Anticipation.

Why does this cinema smell pervasively of Lynx Africa?

Enjoyment.

This guy is like Spider-Man with more daddy issues.

In Retrospect.

A geological love letter to manspreading.

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