Free Solo movie review: An Oscar-winning masterpiece arrives in India; it must be seen to be believed. 5 stars
Directors - Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Rating - 5/5
If you’re seeking perfection, says Alex Honnold, free soloing is the closest you’re going to get. It’s another thing, however, that very few people in our world seek perfection, and those that do rarely develop hobbies as dangerous as climbing vertical rock faces without harnesses or ropes.
To explain it in layman’s terms, and at the risk of sounding ignorant, free soloing is what Tom Cruise did in the opening scene of Mission: Impossible 2. But it is the bluntly eloquent Honnold who describes what he does the best: it is like an Olympic gold medal level achievement, he says, where if you don’t get the gold medal, you die.
Watch the Free Solo trailer here
National Geographic’s Free Solo, directed by the husband-wife duo of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the recent Oscars. It arrives in India this week in select theatres, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The film follows Honnold, who is perhaps the world’s foremost free soloist, as he attempts to conquer the El Capitan - a 3000 foot vertical rock face in the Yosemite National Park - which would make him the first man in human history to accomplish this feat.
Honnold is a cracking subject for a documentary. Even though he has a ‘fair amount’ of money and is reasonably famous, he chooses to live in a van. He eats directly out of the bowls he cooks his meals in, drinks directly out of receptacles, and by his own admission, learnt the art of hugging only recently. His life revolves around his obsession; there is no time for distractions.
In an early scene, Honnold is taken to get an MRI done - to see what sets his fearless brain apart from the rest of ours’. He is told that there is unusually low activity in that part of his brain which feeds on stimuli. It’s not that he doesn’t feel, but simply that he needs to feel more.
It is implied on several occasions that Honnold might be on the spectrum - his dad had Aspergers and his clinical demeanour is once compared to Spock’s. He is also prone to bursts of philosophical insight - “I am a dark soul,” he says, and then checks himself: “No, I’m melancholic.”
But happiness means nothing to him. The only time he appears to be experiencing true bliss - or at least the common, socially accepted idea of bliss - is when he is climbing; in his mind accomplishing feats for the greater good of all mankind. For most people, including his girlfriend, ‘the point of life is happiness, and to be fulfilled,’ he says, ‘but for me, it’s all about performance. Anybody can be happy and cosy, but nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.’
Honnold is driven by that frightening pursuit of perfection that he mentions, but also an indescribable, single-minded obsession that overpowers every other aspect of existence, until it turns into a sort of beast that needs to be fed constantly. He wants to conquer the El Cap not because it’s popular climbing destination, but because no one has ever done it.
There were times during the film that I feared I was watching something like Werner Herzog’s pathbreaking Grizzly Man; the Bavarian filmmaker’s magnificent (and ultimately tragic) portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear enthusiast who dared to stare into the abyss, and didn’t flinch when the abyss stared back. But Free Solo has none of that film’s nihilism, although Honnold in many ways is a Herzogian hero - a determined outcast operating on some level of genius; an Übermensch, if you will. These days, characters such as this are found in the films of Damien Chazelle.
But Honnold’s sheer magnetism can be distracting from the actual filmmaking on display, which plays a more integral role than usual. It is vital, for instance, that the camera crew doesn’t get in Honnold’s way as he climbs the El Cap - he slips into an almost meditative state, performing a breathless dance where life and death depends on millimetre precision.
There are sequences towards the film’s second half that are some of the most breathtakingly thrilling ever put on film; immaculately edited, photographed and scored. Jimmy Chin - who has an amazing Instagram page, by the way - is often on the rock with Honnold, tethered mere metres away, his camera equipment at the ready. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Free Solo would have leaned in more heavily on the daredevil aspects of the feat, but Chin and Vasarhelyi ensure that it’s first and foremost a character study, with real, human stakes. It’s absolutely unmissable experience. Drag your friends.