Whenever I log into Disney+ to search for something to watch, I always see the National Geographic documentaries pop up in my suggestions. Yet even though the preview image promises beautiful cinematography and an intriguing topic, I inevitably end up scrolling on by.
Sometimes there’s an unfair perception that documentary = boring. While it is true that filmmakers have less creative leeway when making a documentary because they’re depicting real events vs. a fictional story, there are plenty of compelling real-life tales out there waiting to be told.
One of those is the documentary Free Solo, about professional rock climber Alex Honnold. The film received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019.
What’s funny about this particular selection for my 2022 entertainment challenge is that my husband has actually been bugging me to watch this documentary for quite a while, but I kept putting it off because, quite frankly, the premise terrified me.
The idea of climbing up a mountainside with a safety harness and ropes is already enough to trigger my fear of heights, but “free soloists” like Honnold take it a step farther. He’s daring enough to go climbing, by himself, with no safety harnesses at all. That means it’s just him, scaling a cliff face, and if he makes one mistake, he will plummet to his death.
My husband, who’s a far more adventurous soul than me, was fascinated by this documentary, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch it myself. However, when I Googled “best documentaries on Disney+” the film Free Solo was mentioned multiple times. At that point, I finally gave in and decided to see what Free Solo was all about.
Turns out, my husband was right – this is a fascinating documentary, and it’s a lot more nuanced than I anticipated it would be. It primarily focuses on Honnold’s quest to climb El Capitan – a 3,000 foot granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.
Before I watched the documentary, I assumed that Honnold was some kind of adrenaline junkie who enjoyed pulling off outrageous stunts just for the heck of it. Yet Honnold is a much more complicated person than that. While the type of climbing he does is incredibly dangerous, he goes about it as thoughtfully and methodically as he possibly can.
Before he attempts a free solo, he practices the climb with protective equipment and other climbers, so he can memorize the route. He writes meticulously notes about the ideal way to make the climb, so there’s no guesswork on the day of the free solo.
Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are able to get inside Honnold’s head and show why he’s willing to attempt something most of us would never dare to do. The film includes footage of Honnold getting an MRI to study how his brain processes fear, and it reveals that his amygdala is underactive, meaning his brain is less responsive to fear triggers than the average human. Honnold is also a perfectionist, and he views free soloing as part of his quest to better himself.
The film mentions the directors’ ethical struggles over whether or not to film a documentary on a topic that’s so inherently dangerous, since Honnold could fall while the cameras are rolling. They try to keep the cameras’ presence as discreet as possible, so Honnold won’t be distracted, yet there’s nothing the filmmakers could do to save him if he makes a mistake.
It’s also interesting to watch Honnold’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sanni, and to hear how she feels about being in a relationship with someone who’s willing to take such risks. It’s not the sort of relationship everyone could enter (I don’t even like watching my husband climb on the roof to clean out the gutters).
Free Solo doesn’t shy away from Honnold’s flaws, or from the question of whether free soloing is a pastime that should be encouraged. Sometimes Honnold is dismissive of his girlfriend’s concerns and he questions whether she is holding him back; is climbing more important to him than her? There are also clues to his current feelings about relationships and risks to be found in his childhood, and how perhaps his upbringing has shaped him into the kind of person he is.
In the end, it is up to you, the viewer, to decide what kind of person Honnold is: whether he’s an adventuring pioneer, or a reckless risk-taker who disregards the impact his loss could have on his family, his girlfriend, and his friends.
I definitely recommend giving Free Solo a watch; it gave me a lot to think about, and it was interesting to learn more about the perspective of someone who sees life in a completely different way than I do.