Up 3,000 feet without a rope: The horror and beauty of ‘Free Solo’

‘Free Solo’/film still

Edge-of-your-seat suspense. Sky-high stakes. Psychological intrigue. Queasy cinematography. And enough unadulterated fear to make your heart pound and palms sweat.

’Tis the season for self-imposed suffering at the hands of horror movies, and FilmScene is doing its part this October with plenty of Late Shift at the Grindhouse film screenings and the upcoming features Killer Kate, Coraline, Halloween (1978), Suspiria (2018) and Suspiria (1977).

But perhaps their most viscerally frightening showing this month is Free Solo, a documentary by expert climbing filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, produced by National Geographic. Along with Three Identical Strangers, it’s the best doc I’ve seen at FilmScene, and in years.

Free Solo follows rock climber Alex Honnold as he prepares — and eventually achieves, for the first time in history — the superhuman mental and physical feat of free solo climbing Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan cliff face. Free solo climbing is done without ropes or assistance of any kind. For Honnold, that means his only equipment is his climbing shoes and a bag of chalk, clipped around his waist, to keep his hands dry. You slip, you fall. And you don’t have to climb very far up El Cap before a fall spells sure death.

The magnitude of Honnold’s achievement cannot be overstated. As one climber interviewed in the film puts it, it’s like winning a gold medal at the Olympics and setting a world record — with the knowledge that if you didn’t win the gold, you’d die.

Honnold is an enigma. Physically, he is exemplary of human precision and strength. But what he’s doing mentally is far more monumental; busting through layer after layer of mental barriers to even attempt these free solo climbs, let alone accomplish them, he overcomes the natural (and totally healthy) fear of one’s own death.

“What Alex did on [Zion National Park’s] Moonlight Buttress defied everything that we are trained, and brought up and genetically engineered to think,” fellow climber Peter Mortimer told National Geographic after one of Honnold’s earlier, historic free climbs. “It’s the most unnatural place for a human to be.”

What allows Honnold to do this is explored in Free Solo, from a scene where a neurologist studies the unusual results of an MRI of Honnold’s brain to the climber’s reflections on his childhood (his family never used “the l-word” or hugged growing up, he says). Perhaps the most insight comes from Honnold’s friends, who are largely fellow climbers.

One of these character witnesses, Tommy Caldwell, likens climbing with his friend to smoking cigarettes — it’s a vice he can’t help but indulge in, despite knowing the risks. Caldwell says he’s known personally as many as 40 climbers who have died practicing the sport, though none were close friends. That clarification at the end he presents ominously: If Honnold should fall to his death — as he almost inevitably will, if he continues down his current path — it would devastate Caldwell like no other loss.

Needless to say, Honnold’s long-term girlfriend, another major character in the doc, has similar fears.

Despite his struggles with intimacy and mental health, and constant pressure not to do what he’s doing, Honnold is living the dream: he gets paid well to do what he loves most in life, which is to climb the world’s most treacherous walls, preferably without ropes. His friends, family and girlfriend are left with the uneasy task of loving him, knowing if they push him not to free climb he will resent them forever, but having to be prepared to lose him at any moment.

Co-director Jimmy Chin, who has filmed Honnold for years, appears in his own documentary, and appropriately so — he and his crew’s very presence on El Capitan affects Honnold’s mindset, even if only slightly. Staying not only out of Honnold’s way, but out of his mind, is a huge challenge when Chin’s friend’s life hangs in the balance — when these filmmakers don’t know whether they’ll be capturing Honnold’s greatest triumph or his fatal slip. Shit.

Watching Free Solo is stressful, but the knowledge that we, the audience, aren’t about to watch our hero’s demise is a small but vital comfort. To this day, and almost miraculously, Alex Honnold is still alive. (Spoiler alert?)

Like a truly great horror movie that includes the pay-off of sharp social commentary, artistic majesty and/or the climactic defeat of a villain, Free Solo has much more to offer than stress. It’s not only a fascinating insight into the world of elite rock climbing and daredevilry, but a deeply thought-provoking look at a Superman who is, ultimately, a man. And, of course, it’s visually stunning, a National Geographic magazine spread about Yosemite brought to awesome life.

If New York City is a “character” in old Woody Allen movies, El Capitan is a protagonist in Free Solo, almost on par with Honnold himself. The 3,000-foot granite monolith is explored with intimate detail, the smallest of hand- and toeholds along Honnold’s route mapped out and filmed in stunning HD. Millimeters literally stand between Honnold and a certain-death fall, and Honnold must twist, cling, stretch, struggle and maneuver for dear life. There’s no space for a muscle twitch, let alone a panic attack.

“Good morning. I think all of you are crazy,” FilmScene Executive Director Joe Tiefenthaler told the audience of about 10 at the pre-screening of Free Solo (Tiefenthaler chose not to watch along with us). Honnold’s climbing is so nuts, so ill-advised and so breathtaking that simply watching it play out over an hour and 40 minutes is a feat of human endurance. But if you can handle a bit of vertigo and lot of crazy, you absolutely can’t miss this doc.

Free Solo is now playing at FilmScene, as well as at Marcus Theatres in Coralville and Cedar Rapids.

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