Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.