You can go and spend over a hundred bucks on self help books this week, or you can drop a twenty on a ticket this weekend to see a movie that will fill you with more hope, inspire you to do greater things and move you to a level that you will never quite be able to discover anywhere else. Last night, I sat for two hours at the London iMax on tenterhooks watching Alex Honnold climb El Capitan, a 3,200-foot steep rock face in the heart of Yosemite. I suppose I should mention he was climbing “Free Solo“- no ropes, no carabiners, no support. It was just a man in a red tee, ripped hem trousers and a bum bag, full of climbing chalk, quite literally staring down death and teasing it with a big toothy grin. To watch this, to experience this, even as someone that has never even climbed atop an oversized boulder, was one of the most thrilling cinematic experiences I have ever had.
The entire spectrum of human emotion was felt as we embarked upon a journey with a man, a camera crew and a larger than life mission. I would normally say we were watching a man live out his “dream,” but it doesn’t even make sense to say that in this case. One quickly realises Alex doesn’t have dreams or goals, he has a to do list. At the top of that list? Well, for the purposes of this film it involved figuring out how to scale three thousand feet of slippery rock without falling to his death. In Free Solo, we travel along this path to the top with Alex, as he navigates life in a van, the pressure of undertaking a solitary activity accompanied by an entire film crew and, rather unsurprisingly, the difficulty of having a relationship when your day job involves risking your life on a daily basis.
If it seems I’m being vague, it’s because I feel as if I have to be. I walked into this theatre not knowing much about what I was in for. I certainly didn’t expect to spend the length of the film with my hands clasped over my mouth, my heart in throat and my stomach in the soles of my feet. I was exhausted by the conclusion, but quickly rejuvenated as the lights came up, feeling as if I had been given a shot of adrenaline at the thought of spreading the news about what I had just witnessed. And I’m certainly not alone. Free Solo has already received a BAFTA nomination and has been mentioned several times over in the same sentence as ACADEMY AWARD. I don’t want to jinx anything, so we’ll leave that right then and there.
But, let’s be clear – this film deserves every award that it’s nominated for and beyond. It is a film that will inspire a whole generation of people, but for reasons you might not immediately expect.
After I left the theatre, I kept coming back to one thing that really stuck with me. Director Jimmy Chin spoke about the relationship between Alex and his girlfriend Sanni in the film, which he credits his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, for producing along the way. After the film he explained that he was making a climbing movie and it wasn’t until his wife was in the cutting room that he discovered she had plans to make this a love story. Only, the one thing I kept tripping over again and again was whether this was a love story. For me, the real love in this film was between a man and his passion. For the first time ever, I came away from a theatre believing romantic love wasn’t the be all and end all of on screen happiness. In fact, I was almost more inspired by the love Alex Honnold was showcasing for his climbing. He seemed happiest on the rock, where his arms and legs were contorted in positions I didn’t think were humanly possible. His smile was always the biggest when he was conquering an impossible task.
I can’t help but think, if I had been shown this movie as a teenager, instead of let’s say Pretty Woman, would my own ideas of what my future could look like be different? If I had less Richard Geres and more Alex Honnolds in my life growing up, how would my own choices have differed? And it’s with that thought that I made a decision for the future. My children, should I have them, would know Alex Honnold as a hero. He would be romantic lead in a film about pursuing your passion, above all other loves in life. He would be proof that love doesn’t exist in one union, and can, in fact, be found in our careers and our paths to reach greater heights. That’s quite literal when it comes to Alex Honnold, but for the next generation that could mean anything.
Before we left the theatre, there was a final question of Director Jimmy Chin and it came from a little girl around the age of 6. She and her brother had sat through the film, looking absolutely enthralled throughout. She wanted to know what Jimmy’s greatest accomplishment was. His answer? Surviving. Jimmy Chin is an adventurer. Alex Honnold is the same. They aren’t defined and finished by the tallest mountain they’ve climbed. They’re always on the lookout for the next thing. They are only living when they are pushing themselves to their limits. It’s an extreme form of living, but it’s their form of living. And it will inspire you to reassess your own idea of “life.”
I’m still trying to figure out where I sit after leaving the theatre. I’m not destined to climb any 3,000 foot mountains anytime soon, that’s for sure. But, I want to find that passion, that incredible drive that Alex Honnold has discovered while being alone on a rock face. I want it and I’m going to find it, without a shadow of a doubt. But, for now, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to go and see this film in your local theatre. You will be stunned into silence. You will gasp continuously. And you absolutely must take at least a moment to look around you in the theatre to notice that the entire audience is right there alongside you, with hands clasped over their eyes and mouths for the entirety of the picture.
I say this, realising it may be too much, but I’m going to put it out there anyway. Free Solo will change everything for you. I promise you that. Now, find that theatre…. and, while you are googling, watch the trailer….