“Why do you want to do this? It’s a Totally. Crazy. Goal.” — Sanni McCandless
Today I saw Free Solo for the umpteenth time. I use the word “umpteenth,” because the actual number is somewhat embarrassing. I have seen this film many, many, times, so many times it may be the hallmark of a mild addiction.
I’m not sure what it is that grabs me so much about this movie, except it seems to be something a bit different every time. It’s the extraordinary landscapes (yes, it’s not quite as affecting on a small screen, say on a laptop, than it is in the movie theatre), the incredible score, the story, Honnold’s personality, and the way it moves slowly, but unwaveringly, from a fun little romp about a rock climber living in a van to a treatise about death, and how our passions affect those around us.
It’s that latter point that is, perhaps, the filmmaker’s justification for making Alex Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, such a key part of the narrative. And in so doing, ends up painting a somewhat slanted portrait of a woman who, we can assume, in real life, was just trying her best to have a relationship with this guy obsessed with a death-defying feat with no clear payoff.
[About five years to the day before Honnold “sent” El Capitan free solo (forgive me for using the climber lingo, I’ve been reading too many articles about the sport lately), his friend James Lucas wrote a revealing blog post about what it was like to live with the “professional climber” who seemingly had no life beyond the sport. The post gives you an idea of how hard Honnold actually worked to get where he is — that rope of muscle that extends from finger tip to shoulder is apparently no accident.]
There’s no way any girlfriend of Alex Honnold, in this context, in this highly edited film of events that took place over a year or more, could come off looking good. If she was fully supportive of his dedication to climbing, she would come across as dim-witted and lacking backbone. If she was supportive but still expressed concerns, as she does in the movie, she would come across as a hinderance to his ability to “achieve his highest potential,” or, as Honnold says in the film — describing the time he wanted to break up with her — as “bad for his climbing.”
Today, when I left the theatre (after having seen Free Solo for the umpteenth time), I heard two men talking behind me. “I just wanted him to break up with her! Just break up with her!” Other things I’ve heard coming out of the theatre: “He reminds me of… with that morose outlook on life… I’m glad he found a nice girlfriend.” Or, “I don’t think his girlfriend gets it.” Once, a man said, “that guy is crazy!”
(Crazy, well, crazy is a matter of context and perception. There’s one thing for sure — he looks beautiful climbing El Capitan. El Cap looks beautiful supporting that climber in the red shirt. It’s stunning, visceral, and inspiring.)
My own response, the first time, was that Sanni was trying to make Alex into something that he wasn’t. That he had been very blunt with her, and he’d never lied to her. But if she wanted to stick around, well, that was her choice. My feeling was that she would just keep banging her head against a wall, because — as the film chose to spin it — she was trying to get him to communicate with her in a way that he wasn’t prepared to do, and was trying to get him to make life choices that he was not prepared to make.
It was the second or third screening before I found a lot more compassion for Sanni, the character, and by then I was really more interested in the climbing part of Free Solo than the relationship.
Let’s Remember, Even Documentaries Are Edited to Form a Narrative
But it also took a couple of viewings to become fully cognizant of the editing at play, especially when it came to Alex and Sanni’s relationship. There’s one key example that makes Sanni look particularly bad, (or Alex particularly bad, depending on your perspective) but brilliantly moves ahead the story of Free Solo. In other words, it may not be chronologically truthful, but it reveals something meaningful about Alex’s personality in this context, and it makes the struggle in their relationship glaringly obvious.
When Alex decides to make his first free solo attempt of El Capitan, he declines to tell Sanni. He’s cagey about who he’s climbing with the next day, until she finally asks, as they are seated in the front of his van, “Are you thinking of soloing it tomorrow? Is that why you’re not telling me who you’re climbing with?”
“I’m not not telling you, but yeah.”
Then, the scene cuts away, and comes back. The two are seated in the same positions in the van, except now Sanni is saying she would like him to “take her into the equation” when he decides to go soloing. Eventually he says he feels “no obligation” to maximize his lifespan for her.
At first, you’re left with the impression that she sprung this conversation on him the night before he was about to attempt an extremely dangerous feat which required extreme mental preparation.
But if you are paying attention, you notice they are wearing different clothes. It’s not the same day. The conversation may have taken place days, weeks, even months before. But in that quick moment, a casual moviegoer could be left with the impression that she chose to indulge her own insecurities about the relationship at risk of getting in his head and damaging his ability to fully prepare for the climb. It seems selfish.
It’s a great scene, for a movie. For real people engaged in a relationship off screen, it’s unfair. For both of them. Because of course, during the press tour for Free Solo Honnold has had to defend his seemingly unkind response to McCandless in that moment. As if it’s any of our business, which it is not.
In this interview from September 2018, Honnold says that he was in that conversation weighing his life dream of soloing El Capitan against a “new” relationship, and maybe now the balance would be a bit different.
(In another interview, I believe he said the “new” relationship was “just” a year old, which, to me, does not qualify as “new,” but that goes to the point that it’s not for me, or any moviegoer, or anyone else, to say.)
No One Else’s Relationship is For Us to Judge
It’s easy to forget, when you’re watching a movie, that no one of us really have any right to say anything about anyone else’s relationship. That goes for us, in real life, as well. Because… well, it’s none of our business. With few exceptions, like if either partner is unsafe in the relationship, you just really have to stay out of it. It’s none of our damn business.
Because no one — I repeat, no one — lands into a perfect relationship and stays there. It just doesn’t happen. The whole point in life is to learn through situations and circumstances that are imperfect. That includes two good people being romantically involved, when they don’t quite communicate the same way or have the same interests or goals in life. Finding common ground — or finding your own limits and dealbreakers — is the very point of human engagement. And as it’s being worked out, it is no one else’s business, at all.
But when you are watching a movie, it’s easy to make judgments. The movie seems to invite it. The movie asks us to assume that Sanni is no fan of the ambitious part of Honnold that wants a continuously bigger, better climb. If that’s even true about Alex. Who knows. But it’s why the movie ends on a big laugh: we’re supposed to smile at that look on Sanni’s face, when really, we have no idea what she was actually thinking in that last scene.
The Movie Is About Alex Honnold, Not Sanni McCandless, So She Doesn’t Get to Tell Her Own Story
It is easy to leave Free Solo thinking that Sanni and Alex are wrong for each other. But it is easy to forget that the film centres around Honnold, and how everyone else fits into his life. There’s no attention paid to McCandless, which makes sense, but also means she’s at a serious disadvantage when it comes to analyzing their relationship objectively. We know about Honnold and his family background, but nothing about her and why she feels so compelled to fight for this relationship in the first place.
It’s easy to dismiss Sanni McCandless as a woman who saw Alex Honnold at a bookstore event, thought he was cute, and became his starry-eyed companion. Because that’s all Free Solo tells us about her. But it turns out she used to work at a startup dedicated to energy efficiency and runs a personal coaching business for outdoor-minded people. So, it’s not like Sanni and Alex don’t have anything in common, and the fact that their relationship has lasted this long might not be a fluke.
So, let’s leave her alone, shall we? Free Solo is an extraordinary, beautiful film, which makes me feel inspired and happy. But every aspect of it is angled. Even the 3 hours and 56 minutes of his El Capitan free solo ascent is edited down to approximately 15 minutes. So it probably wasn’t all beautiful, his movements probably weren’t all so elegant, and he may have made some unpleasant grunting sounds that were picked up by that mic that was hidden in his chalk bag. As for Alex and Sanni, since they are still together, I wish them nothing but happiness.