PG-13, for the f-bomb. I think he only says it once, but there's some other mild language in the film. I suppose anxiety-induction might be a reason to rate something higher than PG. This rating is pretty accurate. I won't fight it. While I don't love the f-bomb in a PG-13 movie, I can think of worse examples of PG-13.
DIRECTORS: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
This movie. This stupid movie. We could have had Won't You Be My Neighbor? up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I'm seething about this movie. I'm clearly alone between the Academy and Cinefix both naming it their favorite documentary. It's going to win, you know. It's the one that people actually probably watched. It's the easiest to digest. It hits every button that people love that I absolutely loathe. Honestly, you can probably write me off for everything I'm about to write because I know that people like this kind of stuff. This kind of stuff should burn in a dumpster fire for me.
A lot of my hatred comes from the fact that we are deifying a jerk. Alex Honnold is a horrible human being. I can already imagine the comments. "It's not like they hide that." Yeah, but they also really let him off the hook. Perhaps there is a gap in my philosophy that doesn't allow for me to appreciate something like what I just watched in Free Solo. There's something cool here and I'm going to talk about it. The big problem I have is that Alex Honnold is terrible and the movie is all about him. Honnold represents the worst instincts I think people can have. He is someone who puts his own needs above everyone else's. To do something as dumb as free soloing involves a certain degree of self-involvement. But Honnold takes it to my logical fear. He embraces the fact that he is only concerned with his own joy. As a Catholic, I often hear other Catholics cringe at the concept of "Whatever makes you happy." I always kind of sympathized with that phrase because I knew what people meant. From a theological perspective, happiness is kind of vapid. Often, happiness means serving the self and ignoring the greater good. But I never really saw it so embraced by anyone more than Alex Honnold. Now, I apologize if Honnold has issues that may prevent him from empathizing with others. I kind of read some spectrum stuff that are completely irresponsibly diagnosed by me. I might have to do some backpedaling, but I'm going to continue on based on the information given to me by the documentary. I was saying that their has to be something inherently selfish with the idea of free soloing. I know that people do risky things all the time. But these people are chasing the adrenaline rush. This is something that makes them feel good. They risk their lives over something that is essentially ephemeral. I don't know why free soloing is the one that gets my blood boiling more than others. I think it comes from the idea that it is a sport that is dangerous with the actual proper equipment involved as well. Alex Honnold takes it to a new level. A lot of the film is actually devoted to Honnold's thoughts on other people's feelings. Honnold doesn't believe that people actually care about each other. While I was showing my film class Free Solo, they told me that they studied him in religion. He vocally doesn't believe in God. He actually makes climbing his higher power and everything about that morality is reflected in his attitude. He treats people terribly. He is honestly the worst. The most compelling part of the non-meta narrative (I'll explain that later) is that Alex has a new girlfriend during the documentary. Apparently, he doesn't get along with many women. (Get out!) Let's establish. Sanni McCandless, if you are Googling your name and stumble across this review, (maybe you have Google Alerts or something), you can do better. No one should treat you like Alex Honnold treats you. I get it. He said, "I love you." No one said "I love you" to him (they totally did, btw. "Je t'aime" counts). But you don't deserve the way he talks about you. I know that he does some sweet things, but geez.
He doesn't believe that people actually care about each other. That's psychotic. I don't know the diagnostic term, but he believes that people are there pretty much to use each other. When someone leaves someone else's life, they get sad for a while, but they get over it. There is no such thing as actual attachment. There's a part in the movie where his family is all carving pumpkins and having a good time. What's his comment? He doesn't like holidays because he doesn't like when other people tell him when to be happy. Who says that? What kind of nutbar can't appreciate people enjoying each other? He does this throughout. There are moments where he comes across as slightly sympathetic. One of the things he does is that he doesn't tell people when he's about to free solo. It can be interpreted that he's doing it out of concern for others. But I really get the vibe that he's just put out by people's emotions and concern for him. He seems above petty human emotion and just can't be bothered to comfort people in their distress. And everyone in the movie completely enables him. Sanni is possibly the worst. She sees this guy who is motivated and famous for being able to do this impossible feat. But when he says he loves her, it honestly feels like he's saying that because that will keep her in his life. Everything just seems like manipulation and it is a complete bummer. I'm supposed to be focused on this huge epic achievement, but it all seems like these people are enabling someone who is toxic in all of their lives. It's not like he does actively mean things to people most of the movie (besides eating with spatulas. Monster). I'm talking about the fact that everyone seems to profit from him climbing this mountain. He becomes famous. McCandless would never have met Honnold if he hadn't made his fame and fortune climbing this mountain. The documentarians would have nothing to document if he didn't. So they all need for him to continue treating his life like it is this novelty to continue doing what they are doing. It's a huge bummer. I mean, he talks to his old high school. What does the high school want their students to do, abandon school so they can climb mountains for a living? What kind of unrealistic expectation is that? I'm also someone who is very anti-sports, so please bear this in mind.
The really interesting part of the documentary almost has nothing to do with the mountain. The part that really raises my eyebrows is the meta-narrative throughout. Considering that Alex Honnold is incapable of basic ethics or emotional vulnerability, the filmmakers are overwhelmed with it. They are filming a guy who could and should die on this mountain. No one has done this before. In fact, it actually seems impossible. I know that we're inspired by the impossible. I'm listening to the very rich piano score that is meant to inspire me to climb my own mountains right now. But they are present like I am. People who climb El Cap die with ropes. Alex Honnold seems to keep screwing up during the practice runs of El Cap with the ropes and hurting himself. This moment in time seems irresponsible and they are all well aware of this. So who is more morally culpable for what is happening here? The filmmakers become characters in their own documentary, discussing what they can do to minimize distraction to Alex Honnold throughout the film. Certain members see this as a job. They are aware that Honnold will do this regardless of their participation. But others see what they are doing as wrong. Mind you, no one is really holding a gun to their heads. There is a bit of "he doth protest too much" to some of these arguments. But it does bear something in the ethics of filmmaking. I think we had much the same argument with the documentary The Bridge. If these filmmakers were asked to come in and film someone's suicide, could they do it? Honnold acknowledges that this climb is the climb that scares him. Yeah, his goal is to get to the top of the mountain successfully. But he also stresses that his death is not that big of a deal. He makes that very clear. He is very conscious of the fact that El Cap will probably be the mountain that kills him. Yet, these guys are getting paid. I want to go back to that The Bridge comparison. It would be easy to throw stones at the filmmakers who made The Bridge and chose not to save people's lives with that documentary. But The Bridge wasn't meant to be made with the intention of encouraging people to jump off the bridge. Rather, it was about people's lives and the issues surrounding suicide. Free Solo is meant to be an inspirational film. The denouement of the movie has Alex talking about how someone is going to see this documentary and try something even more insane than what is being filmed in the movie. These guys are kind of aware that they are glamorizing something that may get many people killed, not just Alex. I'm really glad that the movie includes this because the narrative would be incomplete without it. The idea that the very act of documenting something changes the subject is never more clear than in this film. Sure, the team could try to minimize their impact on the subject matter. The use of drones and telescopic lenses reduces how much contact the group makes with Honnold. But they are ultimately responsible for this man's life and I'm glad that they acknowledge that. SPOILER: What would the movie be like if he fell? Would there be a movie? Has there been a movie like this that we've never seen? This is what the movie really brings to the forefront.
The movie was made by National Geographic. Obviously it is very beautiful. At times, even I was swept up in the adrenaline of it all. Part of me wanted to see Alex Honnold do the impossible. I get the logic of it. But seeing what kind of person it takes to do something like this completely sickened me. It is not lost on me that the movie that didn't make it to the Academy Awards was Won't You Be My Neighbor? a movie about a man who deeply cared about every single person he met. Instead, I saw Free Solo, the documentary that is probably going to win, about a man who only cared about chasing that high and doing stupid things at other people's expense to get that high. How is this something that we glorify? Yes, mountains are very pretty. I like mountains. I even can get behind some mountain climbing. But there is no reason that something like this needs to exist. The attitude of Alex Honnold somehow dulls the beauty of nature in a way that I can't abide. I want to be able to look at El Cap with majesty, not as something that is simply a challenge. It has beauty in itself and the idea that we can glorify someone's potential death completely breaks my heart.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.