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Reel Review: ‘Free Solo’



Alex Honnold is the first person to free solo El Capitan. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


“Free Solo” was one of my least favorite films of 2018. Exposing the same hubris of Timothy Treadwell in “Grizzly Man,” but without the storytelling prowess of Wim Wenders, “Free Solo” struck me as a documentary that promotes foolish endeavors.

I spent most of the film annoyed with Alex and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, which is a name that harkens back to another great fool of the outdoors, Chris McCandless (“Into the Wild”). These two characters are completely incompatible and seem to know it, but also appear to dial up that incompatibility for the cameras. We follow them through the in’s and out’s of a major life decision—when is the right time for Alex to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan face without any ropes?

Those of us who have chosen the mountain lifestyle are belittled in “Free Solo” by what the world seems to be impressed by: An egomaniac with a death wish. It is not a matter of if Alex will die while free soloing, but when. And we are supposed to be impressed by this mountain lifestyle above our own because no one has ever done this climb without ropes before? I am appalled at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its ignorance of climbing and praise for such an unwise endeavor.

I spent the first half of the film waiting for the actual climb. The buildup, which I assume was for anticipation, was boring. Were they going to diagnose Alex with Asperger’s or some other disability? The rendering of that storyline never came to fruition. I suggest fast-forwarding through the first hour of a lackluster story to watch the actual free solo climb, which was beautifully shot. It felt like Alex could have made the climb at any point in the movie and was pretending like he wasn’t ready for the cameras.

The first of two positive takeaways from the film is that “Free Solo” reveals that human suffering is important. Those who do not struggle in their everyday life will create their own, although free soloing El Capitan is a privileged struggle. Throughout the movie I kept picturing a “white people so crazy” meme. Some people choose their life’s greatest struggle, which is madness. The second positive is the 360-degree video technology used during the actual climb that provides unprecedented perspectives. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are good at the technical aspects of what they do even if they fall short in the storytelling.

Honnold is a fool. And I mean that in the Shakespearean sense that his presence is to professionally entertain others. While his athleticism is impressive, his drive for danger is unhealthy.

We have romanticized what is reckless without addressing its imprudence directly. We are commending something that should be admonished by society because of a complete lack of backcountry safety. We are privileged to be exposed to the mountains and immerse ourselves in nature. But in the end, we must remember, Mother Nature always wins.

“Free Solo” is now playing on the National Geographic Channel and streaming on Hulu.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found up on the hill or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s skiing, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

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