Alex Honnold lives in a van, traveling from rock face to rock face in North America — and occasionally taking overseas trips to find new rocks to climb and explore.
He’s the most famous “free solo” climber in the world, a guy who climbs without ropes — on occasion — working his way into the air, thousands of feet, where if he slips, makes a distracted wrong move or just sees his luck run out, he’s dead.
His fellow climber, Tommy Caldwell, who doesn’t do much free solo work, describes it as climbing with “no margin for error,” a “gold medal Olympic achievement where if you don’t get the gold medal, you die.”
They’re both young men drawn to Yosemite National Park, “the most beautiful valley on Earth,” where rock-climbing’s ultimate challenge resides — El Capitan
Every climber — the famous ones, the greats — has his obsession. Caldwell wanted to scale “The Dawn Wall” of El Capitan. Honnold? He wanted to climb the rock (NOT the Dawn Wall side) without ropes, Free Solo.
Both are guys followed around by film crews — sometimes by TV news crews as well — as they tackle their latest challenge. It’s a pretty good living, “a modestly successful dentist’s” salary is how Honnold describes it.
“Free Solo” is an intimate portrait of Honnold, whose father died when he was young and whose mother (who divorced that father) describes dad as on the spectrum.
Dad got the kid into climbing, and supported it. And as we get to know Alex, his insane level of focus, we wonder if maybe he’s on that autism/Asperger’s spectrum himself.
He’s got a his first serious girlfriend — Sanni McCandless — in the movie, a lovely distraction whom he takes a few serious tumbles with. She lets a feeder rope run out, and maybe gives him something else to worry about and stay alive for as he takes these insane risks.
Filmmakers Jimmy Chin (Honnold’s longtime cinematographer) and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi get us up close, letting the camera do what Honnnold must do — extreme closeups of the rock face, intensely hunting for that next imperfection in the smooth granite, that next crack or crag that will move him further up the 3200 hundred foot wall.
And the views, which Alex almost never takes a moment to admire, can be breathtaking.
“Free Solo,” getting a hard push as the Oscar contender on this subject, will earn a special one week IMAX engagement in much of the country Jan 11.
This movie year has been blessed in having two expertly shot and crafted films about the rock climber’s obsession, his solitary pursuit.
I saw “The Dawn Wall”
before this one, and the films are similar enough as to render each other a little redundant — different pursuits, different climbers.
But I’m not sure a non-climber needs to see both. “The Dawn Wall” has more history to it, more drama — “Solo” more intimate details of the climber’s psyche, more breathtaking shots of the climb.
But “Free Solo” is the one that’s getting an IMAX re-release, so this is the one to catch.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Cast: Alex Honnold, Sanni McCandless, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin
Credits: Directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. A National Geographic release
Running time: 1:40