When you walk into a movie chronicling a man’s free solo ascent up Yosemite National Park’s majestic El Capitan wall, you know what you’re about to witness. An athletic exploit beyond imagination. An ambitious and daring personage. Sweaty palms-inducing panoramas. But Free Solo, the new documentary from Meru directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, transcends ordinary thrills. It’s a study of documentary ethics and of fear, interrogating what could inspire someone to attempt something so perilous—and how filmmakers can justify chronicling it.
Alex Honnold, the record-breaking, gravity-defying climber at the center of Free Solo, might be the most audacious perfectionist to have ever lived. Fittingly for his chosen career, Honnold is an oddball guy—a kind of reclusive nomad who has lived much of his adult life in a cramped van, roving around national parks and subsisting on canned chili eaten with a spatula straight out of the pan. At 33, he has built his life around free solo (ropeless) rock climbing, a pursuit that, given the elevated stakes, is just as demanding mentally as it is physically.
“People don’t quite appreciate how normal I am in a lot of ways, and how much I’ve worked through certain fears and had to practice,” says Honnold, who, true to his athletic persona, opted to sprint to our morning interview rather than wait for his Lyft to arrive. “Climbers often talk about doing things for the right reason, and that’s following your heart, following your true passion, not doing it for the camera—just doing it because you want to be a good climber, because you want the challenge or the experience.”
At the film’s start, Honnold has resolved to complete the first-ever free solo climb of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical monolith in Yosemite. The venture would require months of training, committing to memory each nook and cranny in the wall’s surface and practicing the route until it became rote. As an accomplished climber friend explains in the documentary: “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level athletic achievement, that if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die. That’s pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like.”
And yet for watchers, the biggest question hanging over the film isn’t whether Honnold can climb El Cap—even before we watch, we know that he made it up safely—but whether he should. During one interview in the film, Honnold distinguishes between the risk of free soloing (low, for experienced climbers) and consequence (inconceivably high). What makes free soloing appealing, he says, is the tension between these two. But should Honnold’s own self-confidence justify external endorsement?
This is a question that pervades Free Solo, and one that even threatened its existence in the first place: When Honnold first told Chin and Vasarhelyi, who had been planning to film a broader profile of him, of his plan to free solo El Cap, the co-directors were ambivalent. Did the incredible story outweigh the potential consequence?
“The question is clear: By filming him are we enabling something, and can we live with that?” says Vasarhelyi, sitting down with Chin in New York a week before the film’s release. “What about this makes it worthwhile as a risk? And do we trust Alex enough? Do we trust his judgment?”
After months of deliberating, the team decided to move forward. “He lives life with such intentionality. He thinks about death. He knows how he feels about death,” Vasarhelyi says. “This idea of a life worth living was very much at the heart of our ethical debate.”
This value system, though incomprehensible to most, was one that was born in Honnold from a young age. As a kid, Honnold was afraid of everything: making friends, eating vegetables, hugging, speaking in front of the classroom. But as much as this nervous portrait doesn’t jibe with the man dangling off of a cliff by his bare hands, the film reveals how Honnold’s tendency toward introversion and solitude helped spur his obsession with solo climbing—which, due to its thrilling facade, many forget is one of the most isolating sports in the world.
“He was this dorky, geeky, shy, awkward kid,” recalls Chin, who met and befriended Honnold over 10 years ago. “He had no filter. He’d catch you off-guard.”
Honnold’s bluntness, along with his inclination toward danger, was especially limiting in the dating game. When asked about romance early on in the film, Honnold responds, “I will always chose climbing over a lady.” Then, after a pause: “At least so far.”
Yet as the story unfolds, Chin and Vasarhelyi cleverly juxtapose Honnold’s training for El Cap with his emotional growth alongside his first serious girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. A climbing beginner who met Honnold while he was on his book tour, McCandless serves as a kind of coach to Honnold off the mountainside, coaxing him into becoming more vulnerable, communicative, and in touch with his moods. She’s a devoted and uniquely understanding girlfriend; if not fully able to fathom Honnold’s attraction to free soloing, she at least begrudgingly accepts it.
“We began making this film when he was internet dating,” recalls Vasarhelyi. “I was like, We’ve got a great comedy on our hands: ‘Come back to my van, let me cook you an omelette.’” For Honnold, the decision to prepare for El Cap was scary. But plunging into a committed relationship was way scarier.
McCandless’s presence, along with that of the film crew, makes El Cap a singularly challenging venture for Honnold. On his previous climbs, all Honnold had to think about was himself; before embarking, he wouldn’t tell anybody for fear of putting them in an upsetting position. But this time, Honnold would ascend El Cap under a series of weighty, anxious gazes: those of the film crew, made up entirely of professional climber pals stationed at various points up the mountain; those of Chin and Vasarhelyi, his longtime friends; and most crucially, that of McCandless, the first person Honnold ever allowed to rely on him.
The romantic connection to McCandless is what ultimately imbues the climb, as well as Honnold’s character arc, with emotional stakes that surpass the physical. She is a powerful presence—a kind of catch-all character standing in for everyone (Chin, Vasarhelyi, the film crew, the audience) who cares about Honnold and wishes they could caution him against anything too reckless.
“It always came back to Alex’s journey of being that kid working through his fear, having an audacious dream and pursuing it,” says Vasarhelyi. “This is what he wants to do. Can you live with that? And is the film meaningful enough to raise that question? And I think that’s where we landed. These are the risks he’s taking on it. But our issue was: let’s not mess him up. Not on our watch.”