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REVIEW: Finding the worldview in ‘Free Solo’

Climber Alex Honnold wedges his left hand between two small rocks, pushes upward off another rock with his right foot, and then — oh so carefully — stretches his right arm across his body toward the next spot on the cliff face.  

He is 2,000 feet off the ground, on the side of Yosemite’s celebrated El Capitan, and he doesn’t have safety gear or a rope. With one wrong move, he would plumett to his death. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.   

Honnold’s 2018 daring-and-insane journey up El Capitan was recounted in the film Free Solo (PG-13), which won an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Documentary and is now streaming on all major platforms. The National Geographic channel also will broadcast it, commercial free, on Sunday (March 3).

The film follows Honnold as he practices and then attempts to become the first person to “free solo” — that’s climbing without ropes — up the side of El Capitan, which is 3,000 feet from the base to the top. For most of us, it’s the stuff of nightmares. For Honnold, it’s his dream.

“I work through the fear until it’s just not scary anymore,” he says early in the documentary.

But no one’s perfect. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Steph Curry misses free throws. That’s the point of ropes, right? They protect you in case you do make a mistake. Besides, many free climbers have died. (We learn their names and see their pictures, which adds to the tension.)

His girlfriend, Sanni, summarizes everyone’s thoughts: “Why do you want to do this? It’s a totally crazy goal.”

Honnold, though, isn’t normal. Even his brain is a bit different, as an MRI scan — performed during the film — reveals. The doctor tells him: The stuff that stimulates the rest of us doesn’t stimulate your brain. It’s as if his brain and his body require this adrenaline rush.

Fortunately for him, he’s talented. He just might be the best rock climber who ever lived.

Can he do it with distractions, though? The camera operators, who are using ropes, will film his every move.

“I’m scared because I don’t want to see anything happen to Alex,” one of them says.

Can he do it with a girlfriend in the picture? (Professional climbers tell him: Romance is bad for free soloing.)

It’s enough to make you scream out loud: Get rid of the camera crew and dump your girlfriend! At least, that’s what I did.  

Free Solo is as hair-raising as it is entertaining. It’s a death-defying drama mixed with marvelous cinematography and a bit of love.

It celebrates human achievement while raising worldview questions, too. Such as:

What is the meaning and purpose of life? (Honnold says early in the film, “I will always choose climbing over a lady. At least so far.”)

And: Where does Honnold’s accomplishment fit within a biblical worldview? Should it be praised? Or should it be viewed critically as a feat that unnecessarily risks life for a moment of adrenaline and fame?

Then there’s this question: Why can’t free soloers remain content with their last big achievement? And why are they always reaching for more?

As Christians, we know the answer. It’s because all of us — climbers and regular folks alike — have a God-shaped hole that only He can fill. A free solo climb up El Capitan won’t fill it. Neither will a job or a family or a big bag of money. For families who watch Free Solo, that’s a discussion worth having.  

Content warning:

Free Solo contains mild to moderate language: s–t (2), f-word (1), misuse of “Jesus” (1), a– (1), OMG (4), misuse of “God” 1. It contains no sexuality, although it is implied Alex and his girlfriend live together.    

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