I gasped five times during E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s no-gear mountain-climbing study Free Solo. For one minutes-long stretch near the end, as we behold Alex Honnold’s ropeless ascent up the sheer face of Yellowstone’s 3,200-foot rock formation El Capitan, I cowered in my seat, giggling that nervous way I might in a car with a driver who is going way too fast.
The filmmakers capture Honnold’s 2016 and 2017 attempts to complete the first “free solo” climb of these granite cliffs, and the suspense is thrilling, agonizing, perhaps indecent. One false move — hell, one slightly imperfect move — and Honnold will plunge to his death. Even the film crew worries, on camera, that maybe they shouldn’t be there documenting this. What if one of the camera operators, all climbers themselves, distracts Honnold? What if one knocks a rock into his path? What if their very presence is goading this most focused and fastidious of daredevils to take even one risk more than he might unobserved?
“I care about doing it a lot more than I care about being filmed,” Honnold says, late in the film. That’s a relief, just as it is when Honnold bails on one attempt at conquering “El Cap,” uncertain he should trust his life to one incomprehensibly small foothold, and noting that climbing in front of all the cameras and observers — this “circus” — demands even greater confidence from him than usual. This storied free soloist’s usual is off the charts, of course, as it would have to be to attempt this feat, especially after two tumbles he takes in the run-up to El Capitan. Climber Tommy Caldwell, a friend of Honnold’s, describes the risk in terms almost as stomach-sinking as what that camera crew films: “Imagine an Olympic gold-medal athletic achievement where if you don’t get the gold medal, you’re going to die.” Honnold’s fearlessness gets put to the test in an MRI machine, which reveals that his amygdala simply doesn’t flare up at the stimuli that stirs terror in most people.
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The film’s biggest surprise, other than its welcome consideration of the qualms of its makers, comes from its brittlely funny portrait of Honnold as a person, especially as a partner. Early on, Honnold, born in 1985, tells us that he’ll “always choose climbing over a lady.” Soon, though, his newish girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, is living in his van, joining him on some climbs and encouraging him to open up to her — without risking his competitive edge. Affection doesn’t come easy for Honnold, whose family, he reports, never used the word love, but as the relationship matures, he seems to loosen up, to become more responsive, even to recognize his aloofness as a comic habit rather than stony truth. After one triumph, he declares, “I think the movie will be better if I burst into tears, but I don’t want to.” To watch Honnold think through each ledge of his climbs can stop the heart; to watch him navigate human emotion might melt it.