Alex Honnold is the most interesting man in the world, and the movie ‘Free Solo’ proves it.
My hands picked up the pen on my desk and started fiddling with it before I realized what I was doing. I was fidgeting because I was nervous. My palms were sweating as I watched “Free Solo.”
The film, which hits theaters Friday, documents professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s journey to climb El Capitan without a rope. Honnold scaled Yosemite’s 3,000-foot Free Rider route, considered by some to be the greatest achievement in sports. He climbed what many consider the most iconic big wall in the world without a rope.
The climbing footage is world-class in “Free Solo.” That much is expected from directors Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi, the same duo behind the masterpiece Meru. But what kept me glued to the screen was the striking figure of Alex Honnold.
Alex Honnold’s Life Revealed in ‘Free Solo’
I’ve kept up with just about every interview and video of Honnold during his professional climbing life. And he often appears blunt and unforgiving in media. But “Free Solo” dives much deeper, inviting the viewer into his personal life: hugs, kisses, and (near) crying included.
GearJunkie spoke with Chin and Vasarhelyi about what it took to film “Free Solo” and what filming Honnold was like.
Honnold frequently speaks straight-faced to his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, in the movie. He’s brutally honest and provides some of the most compelling and authentic interactions in climbing documentaries. I couldn’t believe some of the things he said. And it felt real.
‘Free Solo’ Filming Challenge
“Free Solo” is equal parts biography and climbing adventure movie. The documentary is laced with interviews of Honnold’s loved ones. His mom, climbing partners Tommy Caldwell and Peter Croft, and climbing journalist Mark Synnott make appearances.
But it’s not Honnold all the time. Chin and his filming team play a large role in the movie, offering insight into camera tactics.
“It was like a special ops, high-angle filming team. Incredibly talented athletes, but also incredibly talented filmmakers,” Chin said about his film crew. Almost every member of the high-angle film team was a professional climber who could film.
And naturally, the film was very logistically challenging. Over the course of numerous 12- to 16-hour days, the filmmakers had to pull their own focus, rig their own audio, and carry their own food and water. After the film was complete, the team had spent more than 30 days on El Cap.
“We were essentially training over those two years getting ready just like Alex,” said Chin. “While we were filming him training, we were essentially getting our angles and how we wanted to shoot it totally dialed. So at the time he went for it, we were very intimately familiar with how we were going to shoot it.”
Chin & Vasarhelyi’s Internal Battle to Film ‘Free Solo’
Honnold describes his free-soloing as high-consequence and not necessarily high-risk. Yet over the course of watching the movie, as he trains and eventually climbs up Free Rider, I couldn’t shake the anxiety of watching him.
“I’ve always been conflicted about shooting a film about free soloing just because it’s so dangerous,” says Chin during the trailer. “It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death.”
Chin said the film crew coped with the high-consequence climb thanks to their confidence in Honnold.
“We believed in him and thought it was an important story. It was an inspiration,” said Chin. “This awkward kid that overcomes a fear to go on and do this incredible feat. That’s the motivation behind it.”
Review: ‘Free Solo’ Movie
“Free Solo” is a film about Honnold’s relentless passion for climbing and how he came to attempt one of climbing’s greatest accomplishments. The film is inspiring. It challenges the viewer to not necessarily go free soloing, but to pursue their own personal passions.
And it’s this combination of compelling biography and death-defying athletic accomplishment that makes “Free Solo” amazing. I shook my head in surprise over Honnold’s boldness not only in climbing but also in life’s simple interactions.
“I’ve worked in this space for 20 years. I’ve worked with the top athletes at the peak of their careers, and I’ve never seen someone perform under pressure and execute perfectly like Alex,” remarked Chin.
“He’s an anomaly among anomalies. He’s truly, truly great.”