A memorable moment in the otherwise much derided Star Trek V: The Final Frontier depicts Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The scene is very on the nose, not only because Kirk, without any ropes or gear, is climbing the mountain bare-handed (The Captain is climbing El Capitan!) but because Shatner was also providing hidden commentary on what it was like to direct the film. A few minutes into the scene, Kirk loses his grip, plunges to his death and is saved by a jet-pack-wearing Spock. Adding to the embarrassment, Spock instructs Kirk that “Because it is there” isn’t enough reason to risk one’s life in such a foolish, demonstrative manner.
Half way into Free Solo, the dizzying, remarkable documentary by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, someone compares its subject, Alex Honnold, to Spock. This is due to as much Honnold’s deeply controlled and disciplined life as his tendency to freely speak whatever is on his mind, without consideration for how others feel. Honnold is always frank and shockingly revealing in the words he chooses. He’s also one of the world’s greatest mountain climbers, a free-soloist whose bare handed and gear-free assents onto the highest peaks have made him world famous. Honnold is a wonderful choice for a documentary subject and his decision to conquer El Capitan like James T. Kirk (minus a stunt double, movie trickery or any kind of advantage other than his strength, careful body placement, and an insane will to do it) makes Free Solo a spellbinder.
When we meet Honnold in spring of 2016, he’s already a celebrity and is seen giving a speech to college business class. As always, he speaks with stunningly unguarded candor, explaining how he gets paid to climb mountains. There is only a hint of narcissism in voice – Honnold is simply telling the truth and not holding back. This quality is clearly an issue in his relationship with women, who Honnold describes as though they were further obstacles to conquer.
A delightful addition to the documentary is the chronicle of his relationship with the bubbly and sweet Sanni McCandless. She is supportive and loyal, while he is visibly delighted but appears slightly irritated by her presence. Honnold notes, “I’m hanging out with this girl who doesn’t climb… now I’m getting injured all the time.” Also, after she makes a mistake on a climbing date, he casually remarks, “After that, I wanted to break up with her.” McCandless acts as the audience’s surrogate – we want Honnold to go after El Capitan but we’re also gravely aware that it could turn out horribly. Over the course of the documentary, we’re updated with the news of climbers within Honnold’s circle are dying of at an alarming rate. The reason: mountain climbing accidents.
No one in front of or behind the camera comes across like a thrill seeker. Certainly not Honnold, who has an athlete’s focus and is frequently captured exercising, trying out routines and carefully planning (and re-planning) every step. Co-director Chin is occasionally seen on camera, plotting out the filming with his crew in a hushed manner; everyone is conscious and fearful that Honnold’s free solo climb could end tragically. The excitement of what Honnold is about to do is muted because the danger is immense. The close-ups of the tiny edges that barely hold Honnold up are unsettling. The suspense in Free Solo is real.
A key miscue is the inclusion of Tim McGraw’s very-on the nose “Gravity” over the end credits. If any soundtrack cue will get theaters to clear once the movie is over, it’s this one.
Taking us back to Star Trek V, Chin makes a great observation after Honnold expresses fear in going on with his climbing; referring to Honnold, Chin remarks, “its kinda reassuring that Spock has nerves.”
A moment worth mentioning is when Honnold attacks “The Boulder Problem,” in which, at one point, he has only one hand on the mountain and miles beneath him. While watching this section, remember to breathe.
Rated PG-13/100 min.
Free Solo plays at Kihei Cinemas Indie Film Days on Wednesday, December 5th at 7:30PM. This is the film’s final night.