Free Solo: Pulse-Racing, Edge of Seat Majesty

Alex Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan's Freerider in Yosemite National Park, CA. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

A week after my viewing of the Academy Award-winning documentary FREE SOLO from National Geographic, my blood pressure still rises gleefully every time I think of the film. Spoiler Alert: I'll admit that on my first viewing, I did intentionally "spoil" myself by doing some quick googling to make sure that the film's focal point, climber Alex Honnold, didn't fall to his death during filming. And even armed with this assurance, I still had to close my eyes as I watched the film numerous times the first time I watched it and step away to let my heart rate decrease.

My second viewing was far less sweat-inducing, but no less enjoyable. FREE SOLO is part nature documentary, part character study, with a thrilling dash of life-or-death reality thrown in to make this unlike any movie I've ever seen before. As someone who lived within an hour of Yosemite for over twenty years, I was enthralled by the photographic techniques that offered me a vantage point of El Capitan that I'll never experience in this lifetime. Major kudos to the filmmakers, who not only innovate with respect to getting every shot without endangering Honnold, but who also bare their own emotions for the cameras while discussing how being a part of this project makes them feel. (For more on this challenge, check out an excellent take on "What If He Fell?" at IndieWire.)

But equally as engaging as all of the acrobatic nature cinematography is our journey alongside Honnold as we come to better understand the kind of person who would willingly, knowingly, repeatedly choose to stare death in the face. Alex's commitment to his physical and mental preparation is a testament to part of what it takes to undertake such a feat of courage. But things get very, very interesting in FREE SOLO when Honnold becomes enmeshed in a relationship. When girlfriend Sanni enters the picture, FREE SOLO allows us a peek into Alex's heart and how the choice to share his life with someone will impact on his compulsion to achieve the seemingly unachievable.

Check out @LisaHendey review of Academy Award Award-winning @NatGeo #FREESOLO, a film by Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (@jimkchin) - a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of @AlexHonnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong… Click To Tweet

Alex Honnold getting his haircut by his girlfriend Sanni McCandless before attempting his free solo of El Cap. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)

To be honest, I was almost as amazed by Sanni's acceptance of Alex's quest as I was by Alex's monumental climb. I pondered to myself whether I could walk alongside my loved one if they intentionally chose actions that put them at such a devastating risk. We also meet Alex's mom, Dierdre Wolownick Honnold, and hear her insights on her son's chosen lifestyle. (To get a small hint at this, enjoy some of Deirdre's insights on a recent climb she herself undertook with Alex.) As a mom of sons, I've had to learn over the years to separate my "protect them at all costs" mentality and discover a new "love them just as they are" spirit that has, I believe, blessed my relationships with them. Perhaps this is how Dierdre not only copes with Alex's choices but also seems to fully support them.

FREE SOLO is nothing short of remarkable. I've also seen GREEN BOOK, this year's Academy Award-winner for Best Picture. In my mind, what filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin captured in this film deserved even greater accolades than Peter Farrelly's pic. FREE SOLO combines stunning nature cinematography with compelling character examinations for a film that you'll have to watch at least twice. Once, to see what happens, and again, to slowly savor exactly how it plays out.

Synopsis:

From National Geographic

From award-winning documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi and world-renowned photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin, the directors of “MERU,” comes FREE SOLO, a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he prepares to achieve his lifelong dream: climbing the face of the world’s most famous rock ... the 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park ... without a rope. Celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, Honnold’s climb set the ultimate standard: perfection or death. Succeeding in this challenge places his story in the annals of human achievement.

FREE SOLO is an edge-of-your seat thriller and an inspiring portrait of an athlete who challenges both his body and his beliefs on a quest to triumph over the impossible, revealing the personal toll of excellence. As the climber begins his training, the armor of invincibility he’s built up over decades unexpectedly breaks apart when Honnold begins to fall in love, threatening his focus and giving way to injury and setbacks. Vasarhelyi and Chin succeed in beautifully capturing deeply human moments with Honnold as well as the death-defying climb with exquisite artistry and masterful, vertigo-inducing camerawork. The result is a triumph of the human spirit that represents what The New York Times calls "a miraculous opportunity for the rest of us to experience the human sublime."

 

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