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Movie Review: 'Free Solo' Offers a Fascinating Look Inside a Mountain Climber's Brain

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Mountains. I've never understood what the fuss is about. Sure, the Adirondacks are lavender and lovely across Lake Champlain, and nice enough to contemplate from a deck chair while sipping a summer drink at a waterfront Burlington bar. But why on Earth would anyone feel the need to put down their drink, get up from their chair and haul themselves up one of the damn things? Because it's there? Please.

The Grand Canyon is there. Yet I don't see people lining up to jump in. The Gobi Desert is there. If anyone's attempted to cross it on foot, alone and unassisted, I didn't get the memo. Mountains. Please.

As we learn in the riveting, visually sumptuous and fabulously odd Free Solo, Alex Honnold doesn't buy the whole "because it's there" business either. The 33-year-old superstar of the rock-climbing world is driven by forces considerably more complex, borderline pathological and scientifically baffling. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) thoughtfully include a scene in which his brain is scanned to underscore the point.

The greatest free climber of all time, Honnold has countless records to his credit, among them the distinction of being the only person ever to scale the formidable 3,200-foot face of Yosemite's El Capitan without ropes or safety gear. Ostensibly the subject of this documentary, that feat unfolds in the film's final 20 minutes. The balance of the picture examines the athlete himself, asking what makes him tick and take the incredible risks that have made him a legend.

A number of hypotheses are advanced. There's the mother who's never told Honnold she loves him and belittles his achievements. The late father who supported his love of climbing from an early age but led a life complicated by Asperger's syndrome. It appears evident from the opening frames that the apple didn't fall real far from that tree. Honnold recalls feeling "melancholy" as a child and taking up the sport principally as a way to avoid contact with people.

The most tantalizing explanation, however, is suggested by Honnold's MRI. "He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'fear'" sounds like something a talk-show host might say of the climber, but, it turns out, medical science says pretty much the same thing. The amygdala is the part of the brain that alerts us to danger and automatically shifts the nervous system into preservation mode. The test's images reveal that Honnold's is essentially switched off.

A romance is woven into the narrative as well. We're introduced to a radiant young woman named Sanni McCandless, who explains that she met Honnold at one of his promotional events, was smitten and gave him her number. Good luck with that. The guy's home is his van, and he defies gravity for a living. I'm no couples' therapist, but I'd guess El Capitan-size issues are on the horizon for these lovebirds.

The climactic climb is, quite simply, unlike anything you've seen. I feel sorry for all of you unable to watch this on an awards screener. Those few moments are so amazing and beautiful, they make you want to rewind and gape at them over and over. Which I'm still doing.

Warren Harding led one of the first traditional ascents of El Capitan in 1958. It took 47 days and required ropes, pitons and expansion bolts. Last summer, Honnold got up early on June 3 and scrambled to the top in less than four hours.

And the only thing he used was his head.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Free Solo"

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Related Film

Free Solo

Official Site: www.nationalgeographic.com/films/free-solo

Director: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Cast: Alex Honnold

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