Directors: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Released: September 28, 2018
Best Documentary (Won)
I don't mean to start out this review with such a morose statement, but I predict that the guy who this documentary revolves around will be dead by the time he's 40. Alex Honnold is 33 at the moment and he's known for free soloing which is where you rock climb without any ropes or basically any kind of safety gear. Sounds pretty stupid if you ask me. Two years ago he became the first person ever to free solo El Capitan, a massive rock formation in Yosemite National Park and it was captured on camera and thus this documentary was born. I vaguely remember hearing about this on the news when it happened.
Before I started watching this, I checked to see if he was still alive (I didn't know for sure!) He is, but even knowing that it still made me nervous while watching him climb so high without any safety gear! I can't imagine that they would still release the film if he had died. I mean, they wouldn't do that, would they?
In the mid-2000s, Honnold free soloed cliff walls around 1,500-2,000 feet tall and this is where he started becoming known to people who follow this kind of thing (unlike me!) He has his eyes set on El Capitan because nobody has ever free soloed it and it seems like the reason that has never happened is because it seems impossible (and very dangerous!) They talk to a mountain climber (one of many they talk to and I don't remember any of their names) who has climbed El Capitan many times and he said he would never free solo it, although he has free soloed many other mountains in Yosemite.
Of course it would be stupid for Honnold to climb this mountain sans safety gear on his first try and the film documents him climbing it many times with ropes and harnesses and taking copious notes. We see pages and pages of a notebook filled with pretty much every little detail you can find on the mountain. It kind of reminds me of a playbook coaches uses in football games because he's using it to plot every move he'll make when he'll eventually free solo it. He has to assess every crack and crevice on the rock wall (some just barely big enough to hold only your big toe!) and determine which maneuver will be the safest. We see him fall on many of his trial attempts, but luckily he is attached to ropes so these trial runs are quite important! I don't remember if they said how many times he climbed El Capitan in the film, but I watched a TED talk he did and he said he climbed it 50 times within the last decade.
The mountain is divided into "pitches" and each one is given a name. One of his dilemmas while free soloing El Capitan will have to be choosing between "The Boulder Problem" route or "The Glass Wall" route. Both are very scary and seem impossible for someone free soloing. Also, both are high enough that if he falls, he's dead. In "The Boulder Problem", he will have very narrow crevices to work with and will have to know exactly how he plans to maneuver his arms and legs on each crevice. I think he even mentions that there's a small crevice just barely big enough to put his toe on. Towards the end of this pitch, he'll have to do a karate kick to reach a bigger rock he needs to get to and really stretch his leg to get to it. "The Glass Wall" is exactly what it sounds like: it will literally be like trying to climb a glass wall. In the end, he will choose "The Boulder Problem" route. I guess it was the lesser of two evils. There's another pitch called the "Monster Offwidth" where he says in order to get through it you have to do these crazy yoga poses and if you can't hold them, then you will die. It almost looks like he's climbing straight up a chimney because he's between these two narrow vertical rocks. It looks very claustrophobic to me! Needless to say this guy is in pretty good shape. While that is important, it still won't stop you from making a fatal mistake!
His camera crew consists of other mountain climbers and people who know him pretty well and this will be the first time one of his climbs will be documented. Even they have to assess the mountain to know where they're going to set the cameras and where they will film him. They are nervous because they don't want to accidentally kick a rock out of place or anything that could drastically change Honnold's outcome. They are also nervous about filming him because knowing he has a camera on him could add more pressure to Honnold and he could lose his concentration which is something he needs 100% of when doing something like this. While his family and close friends are supportive of him, none of them are thrilled that he wants to free solo this massive rock (or any formation of rock, really). His mom says she doesn't even want to know when he'll be free soloing or else she'll just be worrying while it's going on. His rock climbing friends tell him he does not have to do this; that he doesn't owe anybody anything. His camera crew friends are super nervous about filming this crazy expedition. You can't really blame anybody for being scared about his determination to accomplish this crazy feat because it's mentioned that every free solo climber (at least the well known ones) are now all dead. We get a little montage of how this one died and how that one died (yeah, basically they all fell off a mountain to their deaths). Some were in their 50s when they perished, others only in their 20s or 30s.
The person I feel the most bad for is his girlfriend, Sanni, who he met at a book signing in Seattle. Now I don't know how long they had been dating when we see them discussing his upcoming free solo climb and he says having her in the equation will not change his mind about free soloing El Capitan. It seems like they had been dating long enough that they bought a house together in Las Vegas so it seems like it's somewhat of a serious relationship. At the beginning of the movie Honnold is asked if he has a girlfriend and he says he's headed in the direction of having one, so I can only assume that part was filmed when he first met Sanni (if this is the same woman he's talking about) and he says he will always choose rock climbing over any woman. Ouch. Now, again, this was presumably filmed before they started having a serious relationship, but if I were that girl, I would be a little ticked off if I saw that. If I were her I would dump his sorry ass because he does not seem to care at all that she doesn't want him to do this because she's scared for his life. He's determined to do this whether or not anyone else wants him to or not. She is relieved (of course!) when she gets the phone call from him once he has successfully scaled the mountain and repeatedly tells him she is proud of him. Now I have no idea if they're still together or if he retired from the dangerous sport once he completed his White Whale of free solo climbing. He does mention that there's always a mountain bigger than the previous one that someone will try to attempt. He seems to make a good amount of money from sponsors so he could comfortably settle down, but the question is, does he want to? I think she would be stupid not to dump him if he does continue to free solo because why put yourself through that constant worry and trepidation?
I wouldn't say that Honnold doesn't seem to care about the possibility that he could die, but it almost seems like he doesn't care about the possibility that he could die. He seems more concerned that his friends would have to witness it if it did happen. He is not a reckless climber by any means as he thoroughly did his homework on El Capitan and knows how to turn his full attention to what he's doing while climbing, but that still won't stop you from the possibility of falling because any small wrong move you make could mean the end of your life. We see him get a scan of his brain and apparently his amydala doesn't get stimulated very much which could explain why he free solos, but it seems like he doesn't do other thrill seeking activities like bungee jumping or sky diving (though maybe he finds those too safe!)
He first attempts to free solo El Capitan in the fall of 2016 and wakes up super early when it's still dark outside. The thinking is they want to start at a certain time so the sun won't be in his eyes during critical moments of the climb. It's still dark when he decides to bail. I don't know exactly how high he was, but I think if he had fallen at that point, he would have only broken some bones. I guess he didn't feel comfortable going on with the climb, plus all the cameras were making him nervous. On the day of the accomplished climb, they reconfigure the cameras so they're not as obvious, though at certain points you see him saying something to the camera so they're not that hidden. I have to wonder if the complete darkness was the reason why he bailed the first time because this time it's daylight when he starts out. Yes, he had a flashlight on his helmet, but it was pitch dark!
He completed the task two years ago on June 3, 2017. It only took him just under four hours to climb up almost 3,000 feet which seems pretty fast to me...but what do I know. I literally know nothing about rock climbing. We see about maybe twenty minutes of the actual climb and the film speeds up at times (through the "boring" parts, I guess). We see him successfully complete "The Boulder Problem" and all the other scary parts of the mountain. One of the cameramen at the bottom who had his camera on a tripod turns around for the majority of Honnold's climb (pretty much when he's high enough to kill himself if he falls). I can't blame the poor guy; I knew Honnold survived this climb while watching it and even I was getting super nervous! I can only imagine how nerve-wrecking it was to be there while it was happening live. He (the stressed-out cameraman) said he would never do anything like this ever again.
To everyone's great relief, Honnold makes it to the summit and that is when he calls his relieved girlfriend. We never see how he gets down, though. Did a helicopter take him back down? Did he take the steps in the back? Did the two cameramen who were up there have an extra set of ropes? I hope he didn't have to free solo down the mountain!
I hope he doesn't feel any pressure to have to climb a mountain that's taller and more terrifying than El Capitan; I think he should just retire. He already accomplished his dream and lived through it and he might not be so lucky the next time or the time after that. It's just not worth it to gamble with your life like that!