Alex Honnhold is a self-proclaimed warrior. The documentary film Free Solo follows his warrior path–to be the first person to climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan free solo, without ropes or harness. Alex is methodical and unshakeable in his techniques. At one point he goes to the doctors to do a brain scan, which reveals that his amygdala–the part of the brain that responds to both fear and pleasure–simply doesn’t respond to normal stimuli. In short, Alex’s brain is wired to be steely and uncaring in the face of danger. This is a strength when it comes to dangling off cliffs with no safety net, but it may be a hindrance when it comes to having healthy human relationships and interactions.
Much of Free Solo centers not just on Alex’s physical preparation for scaling El Capitan, but also his relationships, both with his climbing buddies and his semi-serious girlfriend Sanni McCandless (no immediate relation to Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame). Sanni is understandably concerned that Alex might die. But Alex shows little typical human emotion or care in this regard–it is climbing or nothing for him. He doesn’t like to say “I love you” to others; he is quite content in his self-isolated world of living in a van and climbing rocks by himself. At a mid-way point, Free Solo seems to question this hermetic lifestyle via Alex’s various friends, such as fellow famous climber Tommy Caldwell. A tearful Caldwell wonders aloud if Alex will survive the climb, but feels obligated to help him train, lest he wonder if he could have somehow helped. But is he helping Alex essentially commit suicide? Free Solo raises these ethical questions, but Alex himself doesn’t seem interested in grappling with them, and while the film raises the queries, by its conclusion it has turned back into a “whoa, awesome!” adventure doc.
To be blunt, Alex comes off as robotic, aloof, and narcissistic. He appears as a privileged white male college dropout who has made his personal hobby into a personal money-making business which sustains his individual pursuits. Free Solo tries to depict Alex as an inspirational story, portraying his childhood as loveless or harsh, his rough background something he had to overcome–his mom says they called him “bozo” which would make anyone feel bad about themselves. But Alex was in the International Baccalaureate program at Mira Loma High School, one of the best public high schools in Northern California. He went to (and dropped out of) UC Berkeley. Even as his mom describes his dad as possibly having Asberger syndrome (though it’s not officially diagnosed), the film doesn’t suggest that Alex is on the autistic spectrum, despite some of his unemotional social behaviors. His dad financed and supported Alex’s climbing lessons and opportunities from a very early age; there is never a suggestion of abuse, poverty, or medical problems. In short, Alex’s is a riches-to-riches story; he overcame living in the suburbs so he could choose to live out of his van.
There is little in Alex and Sanni’s relationship which seems balanced or fair; we never see him celebrating her, thanking her, inquiring as to how she feels, or showing a bit of empathy or compassion for her feelings, especially about his mortality. In a scene where they buy a house together in Las Vegas, she is measuring various rooms and spaces for future purchases while Alex stands around. She points out, half-jokingly, that he never helps her out. The film supports this observation; Alex does not seem interested in human community, apart from what it can do to support him as an individual. In an interview Tommy Caldwell says he respects Sanni and Alex’s relationship, but while Sanni appears capable and caring, I found it difficult to discern what Alex brought to the relationship, apart from being a male companion. Nevertheless, Free Solo defends and lauds him. He might be a bit quirky, but he is essentially perfect, after all. Free Solo is, quite literally, The Alex Show. This is climbing film hagiography and Alex Honnhold is our saint.
The filmmaker couple of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) add an element of meta-ethics as Chin and his film crew raise important questions about whether or not their filmmaking process could endanger Alex’s life by being a distraction (We only ever see Chin, never Vasarhelyi, in this male-centric world). One false move, one slip of a rock, one sneeze, and they’ll capture the death of their climbing buddy from every possible cinematic angle in rich high-definition. Even as the film takes a surprising turn when Alex chooses to back out of his first attempt at El Capitan–possibly because of his feelings about Sanni?–there is little tension in what the outcome will be: Alex is a Climber and Warrior, so no girlfriend is going to hold him back. Neither is nature; Alex never seems to sit back to appreciate the grandeur and beauty of Yosemite, nor the danger of what he faces. There isn’t a respect for the natural world; it exists only to be summited, controlled, triumphed over. Alex seeks perfection, and will obtain it at all costs.
Of course, the final 15 minutes of Free Solo focused on Alex’s climb are exhilarating, albeit the outcome is unsurprising–he summited El Capitan on June 3, 2017. Chin and Co. capture some incredible jaw-dropping shots of Alex isolated and exposed on the massive granite wall, triggering anyone’s acrophobia. Despite these intense moments, Alex embodies such a sad and vapid posture towards life, death, meaning and love, all of which the film tacitly celebrates. What does Alex ultimately achieve? He overcame the obstacle of caring about his girlfriend and the people around him so he could do something he thought was cool. In this view, nature and beauty exist to be conquered, community is a hindrance or an illusion, and being a “warrior” is the best way to live, all totally absent of spirituality or transcendence, let alone emotion or human connection. I mean, the lanky guy sure can climb. I’d be more impressed if he could admit he’s not perfect.
Some of the reviews I’ve read of Free Solo describe Alex’s climb as the greatest human achievement ever seen, a remarkable act of courage. You know what’s a courageous achievement? Sitting in the front of a segregated bus. Marching for civil rights for people of color, for women, for children, for refugees. Standing at the front lines when dictatorial military forces threaten violence. Giving birth to a child. Saying thank you to those who have supported you. Asking for forgiveness. Alex does none of these things in Free Solo, but he does climb a big rock all by himself. That means he’s perfect now. Good for him.
Correction: After revisiting the final 10 minutes of the film, I acknowledge that Alex does say a brief over-the-phone “thank you” to both Sanni and Tommy Caldwell after his free solo climb.
Update (Dec 1, 2018): After numerous trolls have left lengthy harassing and ad hominem comments directly attacking my character in order to defend their appreciation of a documentary film–an act which is quite revealing of their own characters, or lack thereof–I have reluctantly chosen to turn off the comments on this review. These comments are not promoting conversation or discourse, but are simply devolving into abusive and hurtful statements, many of which I hope the authors would not want to be published in a public way, as they may regret them later. It appears that Alex’s stoic “warrior” spirit and general kindness has not rubbed off on some of his followers/defenders. Thank you for those who have engaged with the review (and myself) with a spirit of kindness and generosity, even if you don’t agree with my assessment or you enjoyed the film.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7775622/