We need to talk about Free Solo – and the power of human determination

I feel like it might be an unpopular opinion because I haven’t heard anyone say anything about Free Solo other than how brilliant it is. But I didn’t love this film. The National Geographic film directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin profiles rock climber Alex Honnold on his quest to become the first person to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, CA, without any ropes.

I love a sports documentary. Having missed it in the cinema, I’ve spent a while looking forward to seeing Free Solo. And that only built as it won an Oscar for best documentary feature. Just a few days before, I also watched The Dawn Wall on Netflix – a film following Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson as they become the first people to climb up the titular wall on the same vertical rock in Yosemite. I watched this as a bit of an amuse-bouche before Free Solo and think I might have done it the wrong way around.

Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan

Don’t get me wrong, the filmmaking that has gone in to Free Solo is great. From a sports documentary perspective, it’s a great accomplishment. Everything the camera operators are doing while Alex is climbing, you have to think they’re doing it while hanging from a rope on one of the most impressive sheer drops in the world. The pacing of the film was nice and the story itself in one of an incredible human accomplishment and frankly sheer terror. There were moments when I physically put my hands in front of my face because of the feat that was being accomplished.

What was really interesting was that the filmmakers were in the film as much as Alex’s friends or family there. This perspective, as they talked about how you plan to shoot a film like this felt fresh. And in one of the most engaging parts, talk about how horrific it would be if Alex fell while climbing and they were filming it.

Free Solo’s filmmakers were all on the wall with Alex Honnold

Now I know lots of sports docs ‘dial up the danger’ and creatively present the story to make it seem like there’s much more at stake than there actually is. But that’s not the case here. Climbing without a rope is a mind-bogglingly dangerous venture – that should go without saying.

“There’s no margin for error; you have to do it perfectly,” says a climber in the film, comparing climbing El Capitan to an Olympic sport where “if you don’t get the gold medal you are going to die.”

For the most part, I liked how the documentary was put together. The film addresses how incredibly difficult it is to do what Alex is doing, why he loves to climb and the feeling he gets when he does so without a rope. But my issue is that they do this after they’ve had a chat about whether Alex’s climbing has meant he’s struggled to get a girlfriend. Yes sports documentaries should be about the people at the centre of them, but I felt like at times, Free Solo’s priorities were wrong.

Alex obviously sits at the heart of this film but because of the way it was put together, I didn’t feel much affection to the protagonist. They even start to go down the route of explaining why, physiologically a climber like Alex feels the need to do what he does but that notion is quickly swept under the carpet.

That wasn’t the case with The Dawn Wall. This film takes its time in setting up who Tommy Caldwell is and what motivates him to do what he does. So the pay off when the Filmmakers then address his personal life is much better because we understand how he’s pushing himself in his sport.

Obviously both films are about climbing the same mountain, but much more than that, they’re about what we can accomplish.

Because when we talk about Free Solo – and The Dawn Wall – we need to talk about the power of human determination.

Alex Honnold, the climber at the centre of Free Solo

I feel as though climbing, compared to lots of other sports – takes much more out of the athletes. Yes playing football means you’re going up against lots of other people for limited jobs. But you’re not going to die if you don’t make the team.

So the feats that climbers like those in Free Solo and The Dawn Wall achieve are so much more impressive. And as such should serve as incredibly inspirational.

There’s an internet meme that asks people what they’ve done today compared to people that have achieved something incredible. Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are those people.

But this shouldn’t be seen as something to compare yourself to. It should be used as inspiration. I finished watching The Dawn Wall, a film about a guy who lost a finger and still pushes himself to climbs routes and rocks that no one else can, and I wanted to go out and achieve something.

Sure, I didn’t feel the need to strap myself to a rock and urinate into a bag for three weeks but I wanted to do something. On a professional free solo climber’s scale, he’d get inspired and scale a 3000 ft wall without a harness. But for the average person, we should use inspiration to make changes that will better our lives. Maybe it’s finally losing that weight or plucking up the courage to ask for that raise we deserve. Just because we’re not scaling a monolith of sheer granite, doesn’t mean we’re not achieving something.

Tommy Caldwell on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall

What these films show is that with the right mindset, we are able to do awesome things. The excuse that you’ve worked hard but haven’t got what you want is frankly bullshit. If you think you’ve worked hard but don’t get what you think you deserve, maybe you need to work harder. If you don’t want to, then you shouldn’t expect the spoils of that hard work.

There’s a ‘woe is me’ attitude that permeates society and that shouldn’t be the case. For the most part, humans are blessed with the ability to achieve so much by getting up, putting in the work and pushing ourselves to do more.

So next time you feel like you needn’t bother trying because you didn’t get what you think you deserved straight away, stick on Free Solo, get inspired, and damn well do something about it.

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