The last time I saw a movie in theatres (almost a year ago!), it won the Oscar for Best Picture. I guess that means I’m either really lucky or really picky, but let’s not read too much into that fact for my latest selection, this time a seemingly innocuous documentary about rock-climbing.
Playing just a handful of showings at Metro Cinema in Garneau over the holidays, Free Soloi follows then-31-year-old rock-climbing phenom Alex Honnold as he meticulously dissects Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain face, specifically its “Freerider” route. Stretching 3`200 feet from ground to sky, it’s a bone-chilling wall of granite – humbling, imposing, staggering, terrifying even for the world’s best climbers, much less mere mortals – and yet it’s one that Alex is mortally committed to conquering… unassisted. No ropes, no equipment, no safety net, nothing. Just him and the mountain in a four-hour game of Russian roulette. It’s do or die and Alex relishes this fact.
Eight years of preparation go into the two attempts, the first bailed part-way and the second, well, you can probably guess, but the 100-minute documentary isn’t an iota less gripping for it.ii Far from it, so visceral is the concern of everyone around him in the film. But not only is Alex one seriously cool customer, as unflappable a zen warrior as feudal Japan ever had, he’s light-hearted about it all too, in a way that only those “on the spectrum” can be with their unequivocal matter-of-factness, which I always find uniquely charming (and more than a little bit relatable?).
As Alex prepares for and ultimately attempts this singular, triumphal feat of human physical accomplishment, channelling his self-described warrior spirit, he has to battle not only his own skill and nerves but also the unusual presence of a film crew and the even more unusual presence of a love interest in his life. His new girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, doesn’t fully understand him and his single-minded obsession. Throughout the film, she very annoyingly forces Alex to “choose” between their relationship and his climbing, and despite the fact that he never bats an eyelash in choosing climbing, she tearfully persists, apparently counting down the days until she somehow “turns” a guy in his 30s who’s never done anything else for the last 20 years but climb mountains. As fucking if.
And yet Sanni represents the longest and deepest relationship Alex has ever held. While there’s no counterfactual to say that he would’ve or could’ve free soloed El Capitan without her in his life, that’s simply not an experiment that’s likely to be conducted. The climb was almost certainly a one-off dance with the devil and Sanni was there in his heart, even if she couldn’t bear to watch the climb in-person.
Did that love fuel him ? Did it push him higher and faster ? I guess the real question is : how not ? Despite his amor fati, despite his complete and utter devotion to his craft, despite the fact that he felt no apparent sacrifices were being made in his uncompromising pursuit of perfection, for the first time in his melancholic, microamygdalic, depressed, self-loathing life, he loved and was loved. How could that not make him better ? How could love not make any of us better ?
Free Solo comes highly recommended. It’s a sublime window into human excellence, passion, achievement, and flow. Do check it out.
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- Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2018. [↩]
- While I went into the film “blind” as to Alex’s success, I only made it through the seat-clinging climax because I couldn’t imagine the film being published if he’d perished in the attempt, but my palms were still sweaty as shit watching the in-fucking-sane-on-a-stick “thumb-to-thumb-to-karate-kick” combo at the Boulder Problem. [↩]