Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Review: Free Solo movie

Warning: This post will contain spoilers. You should see it first before reading - it's absolutely worth seeing. But essentialy, yes, he lives.

So here we go, my 2 cents on the feature length documentary blowing our minds in cinemas near you...
The Alex Honnold craze is peaking. It's incredible how widespread attention climbing has received since his free solo ascent on the El Cap. It's great we get the chance to see it on big screen, the movie is a monument to his historic feat and so I was excited to see it. Containing more than just climbing, but also an in-depth portrait of Honnold we did not know before, it has turned out very thought-provoking. As a showcase of Yosemite valley, the movie is really beautiful. Series of sweet climbing shots and landscape scenes induced a visceral crave of once returning to the Valley. For a climber's taste, it does a decent job portraying the scale and complexity of the Freerider route. I missed some more steady climbing shots though, somehow I felt there was not enough actual climbing footage.

I felt a resentment for the contrived narrative added on top of the documentary. It seems to be the case with most, especially feature length adventure movies nowadays. I appreciated the in-depth deconstruction of Honnold's personality, and the relationship drama it sparked, it is interesting and also relatable for most spectators (probably not the case with the climbing!). Even if the conflict is stereotyped a little bit - him as a single-minded, focused cold blooded dude and her a much more cheerful, simple person - it shows perfectionism is going to be tough for Alex. He wants the best of both worlds - but his priorities are set differently than hers. I resent the stereotyping in the narrative: Honnold's commitment to goals is seen as selfishness and insensitivity to some spectators. I found myself inspired with his very clear and vocal thinking on perseverance and hard work. But yes, it will come at a price (I can't read Slavoj Žižek, but I enjoy his bite-sized philosophy videos).
On the other hand, I was slightly disgusted by the "warrior spirit" rethoric since I've always thought that no matter the size of the mountain you climb, climbing and alpinism have aimed to not take itself too seriously. It may be an achievement the scale of the lunar landing, but is essentialy a very personal pursuit. To finalize, I felt sorry for Sanni who first had to go through all this and be on camera at the same time. While already making her look a little like a whimp (a "non-climber"), on top of that the narrative glorifies Honnold's heroism more than her enduring faith and devotion.
Anyhow, while definitely being a bit contrived, this conflict emotionally involves the spectator and adds a layer of depth to the movie. They really seem a cute couple, and hopefully things will get less tense since Honnold has stepped down soloing a little bit (what big wall would be next, anyway?). But now maybe their relationship is at danger with him becoming too much of a celebrity!

The movie also inaccurately claims about deaths of other famous climbers who soloed. Out of 5 or 6 the movie names, 3 times it was not a soloing accident. Sean Leary, Dean Potter and Dan Osman, they all tragically passed away pursuing other adrenaline highs, equally or perhaps more dangerous than soloing... It even seems plausible that, theoretically, soloing contains less inherent risk than base jumping or high-altitude climbing, and the death rates actually confirm this fact. While this doesn't change the outcome, it would be nice if the scriptwriters were accurate.

But how crazy Honnold actually is? For most people the plain idea of climbing without being on belay is scarily uncomfortable, let alone scaling a wall of this size, difficulty and technical complexity. Yet with Honnold, with his calculated approach, I feel kind of relaxed watching him do it. As opposed to some other soloists who speak of "waiting for the right moment", "waking up one day knowing you would do it" and similar slightly esoteric philosophies, he seems to simply analyze every uncertainty down to where very little is left to chance. I'm sure any of us watching was more gripped than he ever was on this climb. The huge volume of soloing experience, plus the knowledge of the route down to the minute detail meant in the end there was no doubt - only pure mastery at work. I highly recommend reading his account on the technical aspects of the ascent for a better perspective of how solid he actually was.

As a final point, should we just be outraged at seeing a movie about something so dangerous and fringe as free soloing? The anxiety of the film crew is real, even if it's a crew that's collaborated with Honnold on several occasions (didn't some of his solos in the past kind of almost match the boldness of Freerider solo? Like the Sendero Luminoso?). I admire the vision they had to make this movie despite the risks, but generally agree much more with Peter Croft's philosophy of keeping soloing one's private affair. It's great they included him in the movie for a nice contrast of what an approach one could have.

Anyway, the movie is a great success! Currently standing at almost 15 million $ in US box office revenue and a nomination for an Oscar... I wish Alex Honnold continues to inspire us with daring climbing achievements (maybe less soloing) and interesting climbing movies. I hope he calms the soloing itch for the sake of his relationship. There's really hardly a wall more impressive than El Cap that hasn't been soloed yet. Maybe this was climbing's "lunar landing"!

we free climbed the Freerider with David Debeljak in 2015 in an epic 6 day journey across El Cap, undoubtedly one of my best adventures in climbing! In the photo, David is seen smearing the glass-textured Enduro corner. In terms of climbing, it is pitch after pitch of excellent, challenging climbing, a real beauty.