MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★½
Release year: 2018
Genre: Adventure, Documentary Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
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 in response to their congratulations.
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/
Jay Jones says
Good golly, why does every single thing have to be about identity politics? It’s so tiresome. Yea, he’s a white dude who is selfish. Every world class athlete in an individual sport—or any sport—is self obsessed. That’s how they turn talent into greatness. Why do you care that he’s a male, or that he’s white?
I repeat: It’s so tiresome.
Amen. One must never pass a chance to virtue signal.
Clayton Shank says
I do apologize Mr. Mayward, but your insistence on grafting identity politics onto this review makes it read as insufferably self-righteous posturing.
“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…”
No, just no. I too would quibble with Alex’s ascent being labeled “courageous”, at least when applied to a broader definition of the word (did you un-ironically invoke civil rights in your argument? Really?), but when viewing this achievement in context local to the boundaries of human fitness it’s absolutely on par with the most daring exhibitions of athletic mastery ever recorded. This is the Philippe Petit wire walk of the 21st Century.
Joel Mayward says
Jay & Clayton: thanks for your responses to the review. Two thoughts in reply: first, I would contend that my assessment is on *how* the film portrays characters in both form and content–is not Alex shown as a white male from a semi-wealthy/comfortable background who turned his hobby into his means of financial gain an accurate description, yet the doc takes up a “hero overcomes personal obstacles” tale? Second, while my final paragraph does imagine alternative acts of courage outside of the film, including (but not limited to) acts connected with civil rights and justice, both of you used categorized me/my writing under “identity politics,” a designation I’d disagree with, but am not surprised to find used here. All art is political; all politics includes one’s identity and social context. To dismiss a perspective advocating for considering women (as portrayed in the film, and in general) “self-righteous” and “tiresome” reveals one’s own identity and politic.
He doesn’t really spend much money, he gives a lot to charity, he does finally tell his girlfriend that he loves her. While the man is robotic, he’s not nearly the type of person you’ve painted him to be in this review. It made me think if we even saw the same movie, or if you simply saw what you wanted to see. It’s a movie about climbing a mountain, the perfection that they talk about isn’t a type of social perfection, just a physical and personal one.
Riley Summits says
you’re being a jerk.
The issue with this review, and why it completely misses the mark on this movie, is that you enter the movie with these preconceived notions of what a life well lived ought to look like, and you apply those ideas to Alex. Not everyone values the same things in life, and there are no right answers to the question of how a life should be lived. I do not see anything intrinsically wrong with dedicating your life entirely to a given activity to the ruin of all else.
You focus a lot on Alex and Sanni’s relationship and talk about how its one sided, and Alex isn’t a good partner to Sanni, and who knows maybe you’re right, but this has been Alex’s path long before he met Sanni, or any of his friends in the film. In Alex’s own words (when describing Climber Ueli Steck’s wife after Ueli died) “What did she expect?” This sounds harsh, and inhuman, but who is Sanni, or you, or anyone else to tell Alex how he should live his life. You don’t get to live twice, this is the only life we have, and if you are driven to do something then you can’t let anyone stand in your way.
You also focus a lot of your review on your perception that Alex hasn’t actually overcome any real challenges, being a riches to riches story growing up privileged and then becoming a sponsored athlete. Its true Alex has had it easy, certainly one of the easier lives that a human can have on earth, but rock climbing has always been a privileged sport. You have to be privileged to spend your time doing something pointless instead of trying to provide for yourself. The movie doesn’t claim Alex has had a hard life. The movie shows someone who has a passion, and a drive, perfecting their skill to do something staggeringly challenging, one of the most challenging feats of mental strength and athleticism in human history. To point out that his life was not hard to get him to this point… I mean… duh. I’m sure that there are people more capable than Alex who are growing up in poverty who will just never get the opportunity to achieve the things that Alex has, but that is a different story, and one that Alex has been doing his best to help with (see The Honnold Foundation).
There’s a few quotes in here that just show how completely you misunderstood this film.
“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.”
Besides the fact that there’s tons of shots of Alex standing around appreciating the grandeur of Yosemite. This quote is just dumb. Alex’s entire adult life has been spent “appreciating the grandeur of Yosemite”. That’s what climbing is. People don’t climb to “conquer” the mountains they climb to appreciate every inch of them. Basically every famous free soloist in history has described the activity as “becoming one with the rock” it is worship of the highest form. Do you think that someone who is so obsessed with El capitan that they would be willing to die trying to climb it, doesn’t appreciate the grandeur of Yosemite?!?!?! I’m sorry man, but just dumb, so so dumb.
i agree with most of the comments here. What a stupid review. Alex is not perfect but he’s a good guy who gives a third of his income to charity. He’s still with his girlfriend and they seem quite happy. He admits he has work to do on showing emotion and is working hard at it. If you watch any recent interviews with him he discusses it in depth. He also frequently speaks about his love for nature and how fortunate he is that his career allows him to be in the most beautiful places in the world almost constantly. There’s even a scene in the film where here’s driving towards Yosemite and talking about how spectacular it is. This sentiment is repeated several times in the film. Did you even pay attention to the film or were you scribbling notes based on your own preconceived notions. This was just an incredibly poorly done review and you can do better. Oh yeah, you forgot to mention the scene in the film where he tells Sanni that he loves her and appreciates her. Also, you try to make a point that only co-director Jimmy Chin was in the film and not his wife Chai because it was supposedly such a male dominated environment. Total bullshit. Chai was more involved with editing the film than Jimmy and I’m quite sure she purposely chose not to be on camera. Free Solo is a great film and I highly recommend it to all.