Free Solo (Vasarhelyi & Chin, 2018)

I spent a good portion of Free Solo loudly swearing at my walls. Not a heights guy, I’m afraid. Watching someone scale a rock formation without a rope or harness is the kind of cinematic event I can’t put myself through more than once, even if I know the outcome in advance. Not good for the blood pressure. As much as it looks breathtaking, I’d rather see Tom Cruise do it in a Mission: Impossible film, because at least he had sense enough to have people to keep him from dying. Alex Honnold, on the other hand, just had his trusty hands and feet, and that’s not the kind of insurance I can take. Good on him for living life by his rules, though. Sure, those rules are demented and hard for anyone to understand, but sometimes that’s just how it is. If you have a deep-vested passion in something (barring, you know, criminality), no one has the right to take it from you. Even if it means risking your life over and over again to see it fulfilled. So climb those rocks, Alex. You deserve to be happy in whichever way you choose.

Free Solo spends more time grappling with Alex’s obsession than it does watching him grapple El Capitan, which makes sense given the context. It’s reasonable to want to know more about why this guy is so hell-bent on playing with death all the time. I think the real reason isn’t necessarily elaborate: Honnold is autistic like his father and wants to approach life in a different way than others would. He’s performance-driven and knows satisfaction when he accomplishes his personal goals. It’s not a mystery. The doc (purposely or not) dances around these things and sometimes doesn’t quite know how to portray its central figure—whether to downplay his quirks or to highlight them. That’s why I’m not sure I can totally get behind what it’s trying to do. I found it was more honest when it focused on his relationship with his girlfriend, which also gives us a look at how he expresses emotions differently than most would. I also liked hearing the girlfriend’s perspective and watching her struggle to come to terms with Alex’s needs. This seems like a very truthful depiction of being in a relationship with an autistic person, and how fulfilling such a relationship can ultimately be once you begin to understand the world from their perspective.

Ultimately, the selling point of this documentary is Alex’s free solo climb, and though it doesn’t take up as much time as I would’ve liked (me being the masochist that I am), I don’t think there’s anything from 2018 that looks as incredible as this does. It’s very nearly transcendent watching this gangly little man conquer the natural world and make his mark on the historical record. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the privilege to see something like this again, and for that I am grateful this exists.