In the 1984 book Bone Games, author Rob Schultheis explores how for some athletes, pushing themselves to their limits in ultra-endurance sports and surviving perilous situations leads to moments of transcendental clarity. It’s a concept William Broyles, Jr. also addresses in his seminal 1984 Esquire essay, “Why Men Love War.” You never feel more alive than when facing death. Thanks to National Geographic’s documentary Free Solo, we can now get a taste of this experience without putting our lives on the line.
Free Solo chronicles rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to scale Yosemite’s famed El Capitan vertical rock formation without the safety of ropes. His quest makes for gripping cinema, quite literally. El Capitan is a 3,000-foot wall of sheer granite and Alex’s life depends on how well his chalked fingers grip the tiniest nubs of rock. One mistake and he dies. Even if you know nothing about rock climbing (and I don’t), Free Solo is a fascinating look into a unique subculture of fearless men and women, a tight-knit community which includes the filmmakers. As such, the movie is as much about documentary filmmaking as it is about rock climbing. But what elevates Free Solo above other documentaries that take deep dives into adventurous subcultures — films like Dogtown and Z Boys (2001), Riding Giants (2004), Man on Wire (2008), or Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) — is how it marries its subject matter and themes.
Romantic bliss ruins concentration. Domesticity blunts the bold. True artists are willing to sacrifice everything for their art, even their lives. Nothing great was ever accomplished by being cozy. Love can destroy dreams — and help them come true. All these ideas aren’t just swirling around in Free Solo, they’re explicitly discussed, debated, and visualized. It’s a credit to Alex as a man that he’s self-aware enough to know his burgeoning relationship with his new girlfriend might cost him his identity. He doesn’t want to have to choose between what he loves and who he loves. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie is when he says as much to her. We feel for both of them. Free Solo raises the ultimate question: Is it better to chase your crazy dreams alone or tether yourself to someone else who might hold you back but makes you comfortable? Is it better to free climb or use ropes? The beauty of the film is how this is expressed. Climbing El Capitan without ropes is the perfect metaphor for life. You need a team of dedicated friends to reach your goal — to free climb the most dangerous wall of rock in the world — but you must face the risk alone.
Because of its intensely intimate filmmaking and jaw-dropping cinematography, Free Solo is an antidote to the lame stories and false thrills of all the digital effects-laden superhero movies Hollywood spews out. There’s no winking-at-the-camera fakeness in Free Solo. We’re watching real people take real gambles in real life. It’s visually stunning, puts your heart in your throat, and, like great literature, delves into the most existential topics of the human experience in the most visceral manner possible. Free Solo is why movies exist. It accomplishes what no other art form can: It places you on the side of El Capitan and makes you feel every breathtaking challenge of Alex Honnold’s ascent. But it’s also a commentary on the role of media in our lives and how having cameras constantly in our faces changes our behavior. It asks, Are we performing our lives for others, or living them for ourselves? In the age of Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and FaceBook, it’s a question we all must ponder.