Alex Honnold, the subject of Free Solo, is a man given to extreme focus, obsessive drive, and a highly spartan lifestyle, meaning he lives out of a van and mostly eats cans of beans warmed on a hot plate. His personality matches his ascetic lifestyle; Honnold doesn’t talk much and is prone to bluntness when he does speak. But though he might appear monklike, Honnold is quite the opposite. He’s a thrill seeker of the highest order, a rock climber with a particular fascination for “free soloing,” which involves scaling sheer cliffs alone without ropes, harnesses, or any protective equipment.
Why does Honnold do this? That’s not what the directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are interested in. It’s a question that’s probably impossible to answer, since there’s no real rational justification of an activity that promises certain death if you make a single mistake. Free Solo, instead, is largely about the intensity of knowing a person like Honnold, of having someone so unusual in your life, and the ways in which he bewitches, excites, and frightens the people around him simply by doing his job.
The mission at hand in Free Solo is climbing El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite cliff in Yosemite Valley that was once thought unclimbable by any method, let alone free soloing. But the secret star of the film is Sanni McCandless, Honnold’s girlfriend, who somehow manages to tunnel through the deep bedrock of Honnold’s disposition and connect with him. Though Free Solo is following Honnold as he meticulously plots the path to climbing up El Capitan with only his hands and feet, it’s just as thrilling to watch McCandless try to convince him to live a slightly more normal, settled-down life—even as she knows he might plummet from a cliff the next day in pursuit of his passion.