Review: Free Solo

Though Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s and Jimmy Chin’s Oscar-winning documentary is ostensibly about world-famous rock climber Alex Honnold, it’s really about how we define heroes nowadays, especially in the context of movies. Honnold in many ways embodies the classic traits of the cinematic hero: reticent, private, obsessed with detail (at one point in the movie it’s suggested he has Asperger’s), indifferent to his effect on others. But as a post-millennial public figure, his most interesting trait is that he performs his heroics without much exposure. After all, he climbs sheer mountain faces away from the nervous gaze of the general public, which is where Vasarhelyi and Chin come in. In their own heroic ambition they decided to film Honnold scaling El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, one of the most forbidding climbs in the world, with multiple cameras operated by trained climbers who would record the feat up close and personally.

The title refers to the fact that Honnold climbed the edifice without ropes or bolts, just the special shoes on his feet, a pouch full of chalk dust, and some water. The drama and suspense is built into the film, since even Honnold admits he could drop at any time, and that would be the end of it—El Capitan is 975 meters high. Consequently, much of the film is about how the directors will deal with this eventuality, even when they don’t talk about it openly. They are just as much players in this drama as Honnold is. Though the 32-year-old adventurer was going to climb solo anyway, had he fallen, it would simply have amounted to a bulletin on the evening news. With a full film crew in tow and a fairly hefty budget involved, everyone would have become complicit, in one way or another, in the tragedy.

In that regard, much of the movie feels almost perfunctory, though obviously necessary. Honnold’s background as the son of middle class privilege and his current relationship with a woman who is totally there for him if understandably freaked out by his determination (which is, granted, relatively subdued) are presented; as well as a rundown of other free solo climbers who have died in the act, some of them inexplicably, though it’s only inexplicable in that there were no cameras around to record exactly what went wrong. All these elements combine to make a visual adventure that’s compelling for all the expected reasons but less inspiring than they should be. It’s not Honnold’s fault that he can’t be the hero the directors want him to be, but in the end, so much was put in place to make sure the climb and the filming of it would be a success that all the mystery is drained out of it—not just the mystery of how it will turn out, but of what really makes a guy like Honnold tick and why average people like us like to watch potential train wrecks. The feeling you get watching Free Solo is that no train wreck could be possible with this much preparation. The hero of the movie is the modern sense of professionalism, which is really no hero at all.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Free Solo home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 NGC Networks US

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