Life in Gurgaon

Free Solo Review: A Terrifying Tale About Emotions and Mountain Climbing

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Free Solo is a landscape of human resolve, emotions, fear, death and love, without easy handouts, informational life guide or metaphorical meanings that one might otherwise expect from the biopic of Alex Honnold, a climber with a particular passion for scaling mountains without ropes, harnesses, or any sort of protective equipment.

The film follows Alex as he prepares to become the first man to ever attempt to ‘free solo’ the 3200 ft El Capitan granite cliff in Yosemite valley. Why he does this is not the question that the makers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi set out to answer. They seek to demystify Alex’s relationships with other human beings (his girlfriend, mother, fellow climbers), and in turn with nature and the nature of adventure sports itself. It is discomforting, unsettling and emotional to see Alex being put through this as Free Solo meticulously traverses to the heart of a climber, a brave heart, who lives with the constant contemplation of death.

The film introduces us to Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, who, even Alex believes, has managed to find her way to somehow connect with him. Sanni is not a professional climber, but she embarks on adventures with Alex just so she can get an inkling of what it is to live like Alex, which is practically inside a van, with a blanket, broom and canned food. In that, Sanni also wants Alex to be in touch with his emotional self, one that she emphasises, jokingly, is entirely missing in him. It is almost contradictorily humourous to see a Alex ‘free solo’ mammoth peaks, while he still struggles to say ‘love’ and instead uses ‘the L word’ for it, for Sanni. At one point he seems really vulnerable and shadowed by self-doubt when he generally points out that he is having a premonition, since he has got hurt, quite a few times, after Sanni came into his life, while she still insists that he has communicative emotional issues and should speak more.


Its not easy for us to see Alex confront his feelings right before he scales El Capitan. His romantic relationship with Sanni is not what baffles or scares Alex. The practicality of it in his life, however, does. As one of his fellow climbers point out, a man can have no distractions while he climbs. While another one claims that Sanni pierces through his ‘armour’, which is not good for Alex. He is bared in front of us, thread by thread, before he attempts to make the climb, and his fears become our fears. His failure albeit will be his own and we are objectively aware of it, courtesy observational documentary approach.

Directors Chin and Vasarhelyi have empahsised on the difficulty of making such a film. The emotional toll it takes on the makers and the pressure on the subject, of being filmed, is palpable throughout. “Having a film crew changes mindset,” points out Alex during one of the conversations. Not that Chin and his crew are not aware of it. In making the film, they may instead capture someone’s final moments, as is shown in one of the scenes where a man slips off while climbing! The camera persons are the prime distraction for Alex and the onus in worst case scenario will subconsciously and ultimately be theirs.

It is somewhere in the battle against all the confused and suppressed feelings, stress, anxiety and fear is where the nuanced message of the film lies. Nothing is easy about Free Solo. It is a flux of emotions where Alex is not just attempting the climb of his life, which will be a historical and cultural feat, he has to succeed or else he dies.