James Rosario is a writer, filmmaker, and musician based in the Asheville, NC area. His record label, Bigger Boat Records, releases...
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Reviewed by James Rosario on October 25, 2018
Free Solo isn’t about getting to the top of a mountain (in this case, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park). It’s about Alex Honnold, his life, and those around him. Most importantly, it’s about why he does what he does - and sadly, that question never gets answered. With a thorough exploration of Alex’s psyche, motives, and possible mental health issues, Free Solo could have been up there among the most compelling documentaries ever made. However, even with these issues glossed over, we’re still left with an absorbing story with a charismatic lead. It’s well worth your time, as its tension is quite real, and the cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. For someone like me who gets dizzy looking over the second-floor railing at the mall, the desire to do climb a mountain (ropes or no ropes) is one hundred percent mind-boggling.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is watching Alex’s friends and family talk about what it is that he does. It would be easy to call them enablers, but I don’t think this is the case. They all know Alex too well, and they know damn well he’s going to do whatever he wants anyway. So, they may as well help him succeed. They rationalize that to do otherwise would increase the likelihood of his death. It’s a very precarious place to put loved ones in, but they all decide to support him rather than - in their minds anyway - aid in his demise. Add to this the filmmakers' ability to paint a crystal clear picture of just how dangerous free soloing is, and their concern become more than justified.
They must know, however, that there’s something not quite right about Alex. I really wish this had been explored in a more in-depth way. What’s worse is that Alex himself brings up that there might be something wrong with him. He even has an MRI done to see if there’s a problem with his brain. The opportunity to pounce on what makes him tick is presented on a golden platter, but it’s dropped as quickly as it’s introduced. He’s an extremely likable fellow with a strange nonchalance about why he does what he does, but the surface is left barely scratched. Something makes him tick, but what? When someone decides they’re going to free solo climb nearly 3,000 feet straight up, something is rattling around in that brain and I want to know what it is. Especially when they’re as aloof about it as Alex is. It would be easy to assume he has a death wish or is simply indifferent to his own life, but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t know what to think, and that’s the problem.
Missed opportunities aside, it’s a good movie with one hell of a nail biter for a climax. These types of documentaries inevitably end in triumph, but throughout the entire film I couldn't help but hope Alex would abandon the entire endeavor - a sentiment the film crew, and everyone else for that matter, seemed to share. There would have been no shame in it, and Free Solo would likely still be a compelling documentary based solely on the drama of his plan and its attempted realization. Whether he’s a hero for conquering the mountain or a selfish jerk for putting his loved ones through the wringer may be the ultimate question behind Free Solo.
Free Solo is now playing at GRAIL MOVIEHOUSE in Asheville.
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