In 2004, Alex Honnold dropped out of college and moved into his mother’s minivan to pursue climbing. Over the next few years, he quickly became known in the climbing community for consistently taking on ropeless climbs that only the most accomplished free soloists had done before.
The most notable of these climbs was Honnold’s free solo ascent of Half Dome in 2012. It wasn’t until 2017, however, that Honnold’s fame became mainstream. On June 3 — in 3 hours and 56 minutes — Honnold became the first person to free solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The journey that led up to the accomplishment and the feat itself are captured in the documentary “Free Solo,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on Feb. 24.
It’s not often that outdoor films get the recognition that “Free Solo” has received over the past few months; the documentary has been screened in theatres all over the world and has won multiple awards. But to label “Free Solo” as an “outdoor film” would ignore what makes it worth watching.
Above all, “Free Solo” is a film about Honnold and his characteristics that enable him to free solo climb. The film rarely feels like a documentary about an athletic achievement. It instead feels like a film about a mental and emotional achievement.
In the film, Honnold discusses his somewhat strained relationship with his father and his struggle to balance romantic relationships with climbing. His girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, is featured prominently in the film. She is a point of focus for some of the film’s central questions, like: how do you let someone you love pursue their passion when their passion demands risking their life? On Honnold’s end, the question is: how do I pursue my dream, when my failure means hurting everyone I love? For Honnold, it is an uncomfortable question; it is not terrifying to him, as it would be to any normal, non-free-soloist climber. This feeling of his is the central focus of the film.
“Free Solo” pulls on many aspects of Honnnold’s life, portraying him as an emotionally distant, determined, yet likeable character. The moment that really nails down this portrayal is when Honnold gets a brain scan. In an MRI machine, he looks at pictures of objects that would usually trigger fear. Instead of responding with fear, however, his response is numbed. The amygdala of his brain, which is responsible for fear response, is not as reactive as it should be.
The brain scan is a kind of a superhuman-like moment in the documentary. The viewer is presented with scientific proof that Honnold is, somehow, different. In combination with scenes of Honnold climbing — so steady and practiced, while our own hands tremble and sweat — it is hard not to feel in awe of the climber.