Free Solo – 3.75 stars

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The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.

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6 comments
  1. You sell the film short. Honnold’s climb is the greatest athletic achievement I’ve ever seen or even heard about. It took an astonishing combination of athleticism and mental preparation. He risks it all (i.e. death) with very little reward.

    The psychological portrait is interesting because one wonders what sort of man would attempt such a mad venture that even other free soloists blanch at.

  2. The achievement is amazing. The portrait, however, was a bit flat and surprisingly un-involving. They had time to show him shop for a house and refrigerator but the climb itself was given relatively short shrift.

    • “The portrait, however, was a bit flat and surprisingly un-involving.”

      I thought it was fascinating, even if on reflection it wasn’t that surprising. Honnold obviously has something important missing in his psychology that the rest of us have. But to do what he did, perhaps that’s what he needed.

      He’s emotionally flat, uninvolved, and even appears to suffer from a mild form of Asperger syndrome. The childhood portrait was affecting. A father who commits suicide and a mother who never says she loves him or gives him hugs. He was academically fitted enough to matriculate at Berkeley, but dropped out after. year because, in his words, “I never met anybody. I never spoke to anybody.” But within narrow confines, he has friends and a social life.

      I thought watching those bits about his life were more fascinating than, say, watching a biopic on LeBron James or Bryce Harper.

  3. I think you nailed it for me. “Honnold obviously has something important missing in his psychology that the rest of us have. But to do what he did, perhaps that’s what he needed.” The observation makes him less relatable, like digging Rainman for being good at blackjack. And while his friends and social life were interesting to a point, after a while, I wanted to know much more about the craft and the ins and outs of the climb than the awe of the documentarians and the insight of the greatest girlfriend in the world. It’s a 60 minute deal.

    I do agree about LeBron. But a Harper biopic might be way better if it’s about his tenure in Philly and ten years of Dave Kingman numbers with half the power. On another topic, have you by chance been watching HBO’s Chernobyl?

  4. Pincher Martin said:

    I do agree about LeBron. But a Harper biopic might be way better if it’s about his tenure in Philly and ten years of Dave Kingman numbers with half the power.

    Hahaha!

    On another topic, have you by chance been watching HBO’s Chernobyl?

    Nope.

    • It’s on HBO now. If you get HBO, see it and if you don’t, find another way. It’s excellent.

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