‘Free Solo’ Documents More than a Historic Climb up El Capitan

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Credit: National Geographic

Free Solo was showcased in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September and won TIFF’s People’s Choice Awards in Documentary. It is currently showing in selective cities.

In the movie listing of our local theatres, Free Solo appears right after First Man, a Gala feature at TIFF18 that is now released widely. Other than the alphabetical coincidence, their being listed together is most apt, for the parallels are significant. Both involved the audacity of single-minded, death-defying courage, and yes, maybe a self-driven obsession.

The scale of the two endeavours massively differ. While First Man dramatizes astronaut Neil Armstrong’s (played by Ryan Gosling) attempt to place human’s first step on the moon, a mission propelled by the leading edge of science and technology of the time, Free Solo documents professional rock climber Alex Honnold scaling the 3,000 feet vertical wall of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park using the lowest tech available: his bare hands and feet, solo and free from ropes and safety gears.

Both Armstrong and Honnolds knew clearly the risks involved. Director Damien Chazelle of First Man spends substantial screen time on the human cost of the space missions and the lives lost, while Honnolds was well aware of professional climbers before him falling to their death. Both men however had to focus on the task at hand and cast the risk factors aside. Worrying and negative thinking would only impede the mission in front of them. Such matters are better left to their significant others, Armstrong’s wife and sons, and Honnold’s girlfriend.

For one man to rise to a death-defying challenge, his loved ones boldly bear the emotional costs. The equation looks to be a zero-sum game.

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Alex Honnold pondering El Capitan. Credit: National Geographic

Kudos to the filmmakers of both features then, for bringing the issue to the forefront. The overarching parallel of First Man and Free Solo looks to be the emotional toll on a hero’s  significant others. One conflicting sentiment that is so intensely displayed by actor Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife Janet is realizing that, to her husband, the mission appears to be more important than the family. In Free Solo, Honnold’s girlfriend Sanni had shed silent tears and borne the reality that she had to step aside and not be an obstacle blocking Honnold’s ambition. Getting her boyfriend to move from living in a van to a house, and gently warming him up to a meaningful relationship could be her mountain to scale.

Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captivate audience with their stunning cinematography in chronicling star rock climber Honnolds’ career and his rise to the peak (so far). What’s thought-provoking is their focus not just on the physical but the psyche of those involved, and especially girlfriend Sanni’s emotional toll and those of close friends in the climbing community such as Tommy Caldwell, who has given up free solos now that he’s put his wife and children into the equation.

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Free solo, the climb. Credit: National Geographic

But this is after all a documentary of bravery. Casting aside sentiments, doubts and softening vibes, it’s pure determination, courage, athleticism and obsession that drove Honnold to a free solo climb up El Capitan. Tim McGraw’s new song “Gravity” written with Lori McKenna for the film points out the other side of the equation, one must conquer fear to reach one’s goal when it’s so close; to Honnold, it’s worth the risks. “Gravity is a fragile thing / All of the work that you left in your roads / All of the dreams and that all / Now you can finally see them / They meet you at your destination / Now that you have made it so far.” (listen to the song)

Director Jimmy Chin‘s camera team consisted of all professional rock climbers/photographers. They situated themselves on the vertical granite wall in strategic locations to capture Honnold’s ascent. Remote cameras were also set up to minimize distractions. They knew dead silence and the least commotion were crucial for their work; a single pebble falling off could break Honnold’s concentration. For the free solo climber, one small misstep would bring certain death. So this was no spectacle for millions to watch on live TV like the lunar landing. That would only add more pressure. This is just one man’s audacious will to fulfill a lifelong dream.

Chin knows exactly the risks and what it takes to look fear in the face and not flinch, being an acclaimed mountaineer and photographer/filmmaker himself. When only 23, he had organized and led an expedition to Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains, and the rest is climbing history. Chin had since conquered numerous mountain tops as well as captured dangerous shots published in National Geographic and lauded worldwide. His award winning film Meru (2015) co-directed with wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi documented his three-men expedition to Meru Peak in the Himalayas, a peak more difficult than Everest which he’d reached several times. In 2016, he climbed Everest again and skied down its vertical surface.

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Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Credit: National Geographic

Chin had known Honnold for about a decade and had gone on climbing expeditions together. Both knew each other well before committing to a documentary of the free solo up El Capitan, a National Geographic production.

The story doesn’t end here, at least I hope. Cut to  director/mountaineer/photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin.

Born in Minnesota and grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, Chin learned hard work and humility from his librarian parents. To shatter the stereotype of a Chinese boy growing up in America, Chin’s story is exemplary. Surely he excelled in academics, read voraciously, and yes, played the violin and practiced martial arts, but Chin distinguished himself by wearing courage on his sleeve and manifested great strength and athleticism through his climbing expeditions. When as a young college grad, he shifted his devotion to mountaineering and adventure, a passion his parents did not embrace, all of them would not have imagined what a second generation Chinese immigrant boy born in Minnesota could have grown up to be.

Now, a documentary on Jimmy Chin, anyone?

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


All photos in this post courtesy of National Geographic

Source articles:

How Jimmy Chin Filmed Alex Honnold’s Death-Defying Free Solo

Photographer Jimmy Chin on Mastering the Art of Chill

Jimmy Chin: Why climbing Meru Peak is tougher than Everest



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

8 thoughts on “‘Free Solo’ Documents More than a Historic Climb up El Capitan”

  1. I’m so glad you reviewed Free Solo. I’ve heard it mentioned a few times in passing, and was intrigued. It’s playing in Houston at a good theater with convenient parking (we all have our criteria!), so I’m going to see if I can find someone to go with me. And, I’m going to pass the review along to a couple of people who might be interested in the film, too. Thanks!


    1. Let’s say it’s like a character study of a climber, albeit I’d like to see a bit more of the actual climb to El Capitan. But there’s enough coverage of Honnold’s previous climbs and preparations, and life in general that make it interesting. On another note, I’ve been watching movies solo for years, and much enjoy the freedom. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks like a fascinating and remarkable documentary. I wonder if it will ever come here? Perhaps netflix one day. Love the comparisons to First Man (which is here and I haven’t seen either.)


    1. Jeanie,

      Interesting addition this week on the alphabetical movie listing: “First Man”, “Free Solo”, “Front Runner”. This last one apparently is the odd man out.


  3. Needless bravery is not bravery. Bravery is defending others in times of war or helping others down from a burning building. This is not like climbing Everest first time. El Capital was conquered by a human already – not using a safety harness is just proving to others you are better than them. It also pushes others to an activity which may prove fatal for them.


    1. dbmoviesblog,

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your view. You’re right in citing the two altruistic examples of bravery. Perhaps bravery carries a wider scope in that it would include people like the 14 year-old girl sailing solo around the world (completing when she was 16) or someone like Amelia Earhart’s flying solo across the Atlantic, a dangerous feat, all to fulfill her private passion, whether she had accomplished it may not even be relevant, or, that blind climber reaching the peak of Mt. Everest; others have done that, but it’s definitely different for him to have achieved it. All for private passion and personal ambition, yet, takes extreme bravery just the same.


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