Free Solo is Genius on Film

Free Solo is the name of the National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s years long effort to climb El Capitan without any ropes.

It’s an ironic name because the endeavor came at a steep emotional cost to both Honnold’s relationships and film crew. And, since El Capitan is 3,000 feet high, Honnold ran the risk of paying for the climb with his life.

It’s two days until the Academy Awards. Sure, the event is a glammed up version of any other industry trophy night, but I’m still casting my non-existent vote for best documentary to this movie. The non-climbing moments efficiently capture Honnold’s charms and faults. The climbing is filmed brilliantly, and it’s breathtaking.

But Free Solo is valuable because it is a picture of sustained genius at work. It is in fact a service to all: it captures the creative process of peak human achievement.

Perhaps you could say the same thing about Nadia Comaneci scoring the first perfect 10 in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympic Games. That too, was filmed. And it’s true that her performance is likely just as unattainable for the rest of us mortals as Honnold’s. Except hers lasted seconds and (unless you were competing for the USSR back in the day or North Korea today) a slight mistake did not equal failure AND death. More importantly, Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan with no ropes was not a competition.

There are likely better comparisons of his feat to composing or, more importantly, performing music. But for as many times as I’ve been overjoyed by a live concert, I’ve never left a venue with quite the same feeling: that what I’d just seen was equivalent to watching da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa.

Free Solo has plenty of illuminating moments, including the profound effect the presence of cameras has on the act of climbing. (Imagine cameras surrounding Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or over the shoulder of Tolstoy writing War and Peace.) And there is the slow accumulation of tension and anxiety right to the moment Honnold begins his climb.

But the movie is a treasure because it so skillfully records the human drive to live for an ultimate — and ultimately artistic and beautiful — achievement.