What’s That Movie? Free Solo – a film by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Welcome to What’s That DVD – a new feature on Book Club Mom…because great stories come in many formats!

I recently watched a documentary that can only be described as both amazing and vicariously terrifying. Free Solo is the story of Alex Honnold, a professional adventure rock climber who, with only his hands and feet, scaled El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is the world’s most famous rock, 3000 feet of petrifying vertical ascent. Honnold is the only person to attempt this dangerous climb, and he succeeded at doing the impossible!

Free Solo won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are the award-winning husband-wife team. (Read about them in the LA Times here.) In their documentary, they introduce Honnold, a climber with extraordinary focus and drive. The term free solo means no ropes, no people, nothing but climber and rock. When Honnold agreed to be filmed on the ground and up on the rock (via drone), Vasarhelyi and Chin faced difficult challenges…and moral decisions. How to film his climb without interfering? Because any distraction could mean death. And what to do if he fell?

Honnold prepared by climbing, and climbing El Capitan with ropes, learning every ledge and crevice, which he would somehow grip and hang onto. He did this with a super-human ability to manage risk and remove the emotion from the task at hand.

Even though I knew he would succeed, my stomach dropped each time I saw him hanging by seemingly nothing on a precarious straight-up cliff. My hands and feet were sweating through the last half-hour of the film.

When someone does something this impossible, we want to know the story behind the story. This is where Vasarhelyi and Chin excel. What kind of person attempts such a dangerous climb? And how did Honnold become a climber? As much a part of Honnold’s story is his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who openly discusses their relationship. How they function as a couple. How she loves a man who puts this challenge ahead of everything else. He knows he could die and tells her that’s okay, she’ll move on. That’s a tough statement. Honnold and McCandless are such an adorable couple, I hope he “hangs on” to her too!

Honnold’s memoir, Alone on the Wall, was published in 2018.  For more about Honnold and his book visit alexhonnold.com.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

18 thoughts on “What’s That Movie? Free Solo – a film by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

    1. Hi Jill! Two of my work friends recommended Free Solo to me and, after hearing their praise, I knew I wanted to watch it. Alex Honnold is a one-of-a-kind in mental coolness and preparation, and he did the impossible. Hope you get to see it and thanks for commenting!

    1. Yes, so am I, Norah. In this case, Alex Honnold is unique in that he is probably the only person in the world who thinks the way he does. He’s able to completely separate his emotions from the danger and to prepare for every single contingency. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  1. Great post, but I do not think I completely agree with what Alex does publicly or what the producers decided to do with it. No one is super-human. The chances that Alex falls may have been slim, but they were there and the cost was his life. Therefore, I do not feel comfortable watching the movie knowing that I am watching it simply BECAUSE he managed to survive. We could have been reading about his funeral in newspapers. I am not even talking about all these young people who would undoubtedly try to train themselves and follow his “career” path, leading to more deaths in future.

    1. Hi Diana – thank you for taking the time to read and comment. You offer a strong argument against the sport and the film itself. Thrill seekers and risk takers are of their own kind – it’s a mentality very different from mine. And as a viewers, we endorse that. That said, I don’t think the film would encourage others to try a climb like this. Alex deals with risk in a way no other human could manage. He reduces it, bit by bit, by obsessively preparing and training. I thought that was fascinating. The documentary is also very clear about Alex, his detached emotions, and his hyper-focused drive and is just as much a study about his struggles/relationship with his girlfriend and his attitude towards risk. I agree, however, that the film could be seen to glorify reckless risk-taking. Thanks so much for stopping by.

      1. Well, the way Alex treats his girlfriend is a completely different objection on my part, but I would not even go that far. I guess my opinion about this film is very unpopular.

Tell me what you're thinking!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s