One says probable because the film applies pop psychology to depict Honnold as a person who could very well have a steady heartbeat even as he climbs a dangerous mountain. Functional MRI scans reveal that he has a dead amygdala, meaning he has no appreciation of risk. He does have an appreciation of reward, as reaching various peaks is easily compared to drug addiction. The neurological root causes are put next to Freudian ones, as it’s suggested that Honnold had a bad relationship with his now-dead father, and all these ascents are futile efforts to get him to say he’s proud of his son. The film is at its weakest in these attempts to therapize Honnold, an on-the-spectrum type who describes himself of having to learn and relearn how to hug people well into his twenties. The many awkward high-fives he gives people are evidence enough of his otherworldliness, to say nothing of his insane goals.
Conversely, Free Solo is at its best when it’s not exalting in human achievement, but asking what is the real cost or potential outcome of not only the climb itself, but the film as well. Honnold is no island, drifting through the world free of connection. In the very real outcome of his death, which many other free climbers like him have suffered, Vasarhelyi and Chin will have witnessed it, his friends and fans will experience the pain of his absence, and his put-upon girlfriend will have a ration of trauma to deal with. He’s playing dice with his life and their grief, no matter how much preparation he puts into the endeavor. Additionally, the directors are aware of the observer effect, such that they worry about the chance that their presence might cause Honnold to do something he otherwise wouldn’t out of an attempt to ‘save’ the film, and subsequently take the plunge. There’s also the likelihood that the considerable success of Free Solo will encourage other free climbers, some of whom will end their lives as a stain on a forest floor. This film is in active discussion about its existence, a meta wrinkle that one doesn’t expect from documentaries about this topic.
That Free Solo exists at all is proof that Honnold does not die during his climb, but one wonders where this all ends. Who’ll be the first free climber to do this blindfolded, or fastest, or nude? Honnold is the first to attempt something, a space usually reserved for heroic acts, but it’s hard to leave Free Solo with admiration for this guy, a surprise that elevates the film that captures his feat. The film contains a Herzogian shot of a deer watching Honnold do his thing, and one wants to believe that this animal is just as baffled by what it’s taking in as this viewer. Maybe that deer was taking a break from going mano a ciervo with a hunter, staring down his rifle sights and trying if he could leap out of the way at the last second, just to see if could. Maybe Honnold nodded back at this daredevil deer, recognizing more of himself in it than he does in earthbound humans who would no sooner climb an obelisk than grow antlers. In that moment, there’s a sense that the deer’s content, but that Honnold never will be. Free Solo manages to both exalt and pity its subject, and look damn great in the process. B+