The 'Radical Faith' Behind Breathtaking New Film 'Free Solo'

Free Solo is a groundbreaking documentary. But the filmmakers almost abandoned the project.

Posted in , Sep 27, 2018

Alex Honnold Free Soloing El Capitan

Making Free Solo was the risk of the lifetime—for Alex Honnold, the rock climber the film centers on, and the film crew.

The new National Geographic documentary chronicles Honnold’s quest to become the first person in history to “free solo” El Capitan, the massive rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California. It was a feat considered impossible for decades. To do so Honnold would have to scale the nearly 3000-foot sheer granite wall without a rope or harness.

It is a difficult endeavor to understand without a visual, which is precisely why the film is so important. At one point, Honnold is literally holding on to El Capitan by his thumbs as he karate kicks to a new position. Without this documentary, few would be able to comprehend the enormity of the task Honnold set out to accomplish.

However, the film isn’t just about the climb; it’s also about overcoming fear. Honnold struggles to reconcile pursuing his passion with the very real chance that doing so will ultimately kill him. Since 1968, 25 climbers have died as a result of accidents while climbing El Capitan. Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, grapple with how he can continue to climb when it causes her so much stress. They also deal with his difficulty with intimacy—he originally took up free soloing because he was too afraid to ask people to partner with him on climbs.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the co-directors of the film, initially set out to film a character portrait of Honnold. When Honnold confessed that he was thinking of free soloing El Capitan, they stopped filming for three months.

“We really had to ask ourselves some difficult questions about the ethics around it,” Chin said at a screening of the film in New York City. “’How is this [going to] affect Alex’s climb?’ ‘Do we trust his decisions?’ ‘Are we willing to carry this risk?’ But we eventually came around to the fact that it was a really potentially beautiful story.”

Chai Vasarhelyi agreed.

“I'm not a climber,” Chai Vasarhelyi said. “I'm a filmmaker, and I had a radical faith in Jimmy, in his risk assessment. And I learned to have a radical faith in Alex, and trust his judgment.”

Their faith paid off when Honnold completed the climb successfully on June 3, 2017. The New York Times said Honnold’s ascent “should be celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind ever.” Professional rock climber, Tommy Caldwell, who trained with Honnold in Free Solo, told National Geographic that “This is the 'moon landing' of free soloing.” 

The shots of Honnold’s free solo are enough to make the film worth seeing, especially on a large screen. Chin assembled a film crew of professional climbers who positioned themselves to capture the most harrowing moments of Honnold’s climb.

However, the movie is about more than just the summit.

“The climb is about something bigger,” Chai Vasarhelyi said. “It's about how you live your life. It's about how you move through fear.”

Free Solo is in theaters September 28. Find a showing near you here. 

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