Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Fair warning: Spoilers are required if you are going to see Free Solo. And this is the spoiler: Alex Honnold does not fall to a bloody death from the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan.
If you did not know this going in, the stress of watching this film would be simply unbearable. I’ve never seen anything like it.
In June of 2017, the 32-year-old Honnold climbed the entire 3000-foot face of El Cap in just 3 hours and 56 minutes. Without ropes, aid, or support. (That’s called “free solo” climbing.) With camera crews watching. The backstory to this feat and an extremely condensed version of the climb are what you’ll see in Free Solo.
But the climb and the movie are not really what strike me about Honnold. What fascinates me the most is his focus on what is most important in his life, and his ability to keep “secondary” issues in perspective.
Note that I put secondary in quotes. This convention means that I am using the word ironically. I am fairly certain that most people would not recommend considering a partner or spouse a secondary concern, as Honnold does. I also imagine that very few people could abide living in a van for years on end simply because of a desire to live close to their place of occupation/vocation.
Honnold’s focus on climbing also borders on the obsessive… but how could it not be, when to do what Honnold does he must memorize an endless series of moves, and then execute them all without a single mistake? Imagine, for instance, doing a one-man show of the entire text of Hamlet (which runs nearly four hours), playing all the parts yourself, and knowing that if you flubbed a single line or entrance you’d be executed. Yes, I think you’d be pretty obsessive about getting your part down pat.
Which begs the question: Why choose a past-time that requires such obsessive attention to detail?
The film explains part of the answer to that question for Honnold, which is that his brain doesn’t function the way that most people’s brains do. His amygdala simply needs one helluva lot more stimulation than does yours or mine in order to light up.
Another part of the answer is one that runs through all of adventure, climbing, and mountaineering literature: Surviving in extreme environments simply makes certain people feel more alive, and helps them navigate “real life” more sanely.
But what about those “secondary” concerns and where they intersect in “real life”? It’s pretty clear that for girlfriend Sanni McCandless, and friends like Jimmy Chin or Tommy Caldwell, Honnold’s primary concern is a pretty hard thing to stand by watch. Still, the appeal of being around a person like Honnold is obvious. Such single-minded devotion reminds us how passionless most of our lives are, and by contrast reminds us of what vitality can look like.
And it’s frankly kind of hilarious to see priorities put in their proper place. When Honnold and McCandless go shopping for a refrigerator for Honnold’s first home, he is thrilled almost beyond words to find an actual basic icebox free of gizmos, gadgets, and stainless steel. He lovingly describes the basic white appliance as “so adequate!”
Refreshing, and hilarious.
And scary as hell!
Free Solo is playing a one-week special engagement at the Cinemark Lincoln Square in Bellevue, Seattle’s Regal Thornton Place Stadium 14, and Seattle’s Crest Cinema. Go out of your way to see this on the big screen!