If ever there was a film worth seeking out on the big screen in Japan’s network of independent cinemas, it’s “Free Solo,” the Academy Award-winning, vertical-axis documentary that tells the tale of Alex Honnold’s climb up the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.
Consider this: When the face of El Capitan was first climbed in 1958, it took three climbers — Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore — 47 days to make it to the top. Honnold completed his attempt in three hours and 56 minutes.
Back in 1958, Harding, Merry and Whitmore used siege tactics to make the top — they were aided by fixed ropes, pitons and expansion bolts and carried with them a whole expedition’s worth of gear. Honnold climbed it unaided, solo and with not a single rope — free soloing at its finest.
Yet “Free Solo” is not just an extreme sports documentary, the type that’s become synonymous with Red Bull. At once, it is a love story, a meditation on risk versus reward and 100 minutes of utterly terrifying, sweat-inducing, will-he-or-won’t-he-make-it drama. Even knowing that Honnold survives, the impossibility of the climb defies belief.
The film was never a given, though. For Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed “Free Solo” in partnership with her husband and professional climber, Jimmy Chin, the sheer weight of the risk nearly derailed the project before it could even get off the ground.
“After (our) previous film, ‘Meru,’ we always knew our next film was going to be a character portrait,” says Vasarhelyi. “Jimmy had known Alex for a very long time … but Alex and I personally didn’t know each other, so we were set up on a date by Jimmy to get a feel for one another. It was during this breakfast at my house that Alex told me about his dream of free soloing El Cap.”
In that moment, Vasarhelyi, who doesn’t climb, only understood part of the significance of what Honnold was proposing. But, drawn in by his singular vision, she was instantly intrigued by the idea.
“I’m not a climber, but I am a filmmaker and I was like, ‘that sounds incredible.’ And then I told Jimmy and he almost fell off his chair,” she says. “The crazy thing was Alex told me first, of all people, because I didn’t understand the magnitude of what it was. (When I knew more), the prospect was too scary, and so Jimmy and I stepped away from the project for about six months and had some soul searching time.”
It was in conversation with Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air,” and one of the survivors of the disastrous 1996 expedition up Mount Everest on which the film “Everest” (2015) is based, that Vasarhelyi and Chin found the confidence to pursue the project, aware that if anyone was to film Honnold’s attempt and pose the least danger and distraction while he climbed, it would be them.
“(Jon) asked us a series of questions,” says Vasarhelyi. “‘Are we the best people to make this film?’ Probably, yes. ‘Do we believe Alex is going to do it.’ That was a yes. And, ‘Do we trust Alex.’ And that was also a yes.”
As a character portrait, the film is a highly revealing and honest portrayal of Honnold’s character, but also the acute tension between filmmaker and subject in an environment that affords no margin for error, where the consequence of the smallest mistake might be death. Following one of the film’s crux points, in conversation with Chin, Honnold says, “I’m aware that if I wanted to, I wouldn’t tell anybody and I could go off on my own and just do (the climb) on my own terms.”
It’s excellent footage, and serves to ramp up the tension of the film, but it’s also an idea that would haunt any documentary maker — their subject going dark before the climactic moment. Bear in mind also that Vasarhelyi, Chin and the rest of the team had been following Honnold for almost two years at this point. But for Vasarhelyi, that conversation only reinforced her belief in Honnold.
“I feel like he should (voice those concerns) out loud and he always could have done (the climb) without us. But I trusted him enough that he never would,” she says. “If he wasn’t committed to this project, this film never would have been made. We were in a very tight circle of trust and Alex absolutely should have had to digest those feelings, and I’m very glad that he did and that he self-advocated in that way … it made me feel more confident in his decision-making.”
Honnold undergoes two significant transitions during the film that turn the story from one of excellent sportsmanship to one of sublime humanity. He meets Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless and falls in love, both of them living together in the decked-out van Honnold calls home. The relationship gives the film an extra leg to stand on and helps humanize the climber.
At the same time, Honnold seems to lose the sheen of invincibility that accompanies him at the beginning of the film. Two injuries set him back, one of which comes while climbing with Sanni, and the audience — and Honnold himself — is forced to question whether his relationship is distracting him from the climb.
“The relationship is actually why the film transcends, and why the film is what it is, because suddenly you see a man evolving,” says Vasarhelyi. “I don’t think Alex would have had that evolution just by free soloing El Cap. The truly remarkable change that happens during those two years is that Alex falls in love fully as a human being and learns this emotional language that he never had before.
“Everyone responds to the relationship in a different way, everyone talks about it, it’s one of the first questions people ask, ‘are they still together?’ Yes, it’s the real deal, the chemistry was absolutely palpable in the room and as filmmakers we were very, very lucky he met her.”
Ultimately the film becomes as much the story of Alex’s journey to the base of El Cap as his climb to the top of it, and that makes “Free Solo” a film relevant to more than just the usual disciples of climbing. (A warning though: If you can’t stomach the sight of a man dangling 1,000 meters off the ground with no ropes, you’ll probably have a tough time getting through to the end).
“We’ve been so humbled by the outpouring of feeling from people who’ve watched this film, climbers and non-climbers alike, how Alex’s story inspires, in terms of making the impossible possible,” says Vasarhelyi. “He is the inspiring story for every nerd, or anyone who’s ever been scared of anything. I really empathize with that fear. You don’t have to free solo El Cap to relate to (the film), everyone has their own version of El Cap.”
“Free Solo” is now showing in selected cinemas across the nation. For more information, visit www.freesolo-jp.com.