Free Solo

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Free Solo
Free Solo.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed by
Produced by
  • Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
  • Jimmy Chin
  • Shannon Dill
  • Evan Hayes
  • Jimmy Chin
  • Clair Popkin
  • Mikey Schaefer
Edited byBob Eisenhardt
Music byMarco Beltrami
Distributed byNational Geographic Documentary Films
Release dates
  • August 31, 2018 (2018-08-31) (Telluride)
  • September 28, 2018 (2018-09-28) (United States)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$29.3 million[1]

Free Solo is a 2018 American documentary film directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin[2] that profiles rock climber Alex Honnold on his quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017.[3][4]

The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018, and also screened at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award in the Documentaries category.[5] It was released in the United States on September 28, 2018 and grossed over $28 million.[6]

The film received acclaim from critics and numerous accolades, including winning Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards.[7][8]


The film opens as the camera pans El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and climber Alex Honnold free-soloing it in May 2017. The film then flashbacks to Spring 2016, when Alex is living in his van and starting his preparation to free solo El Capitan. In one of his first steps, he meets with a friend and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell to climb the Freerider route up El Capitan with equipment.

The camera then cuts to Alex talking about his childhood, his shy and lonesome demeanor, and his relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless. In the next scene, Alex is climbing while Sanni is feeding the rope through a grigri, but she makes a mistake in which the rope is not fed through the grigri, and Alex falls. He visits a physician, where it is revealed he has a compression fracture. Alex then admits wanting to break up with Sanni. The film jumps to summer 2016 when Alex and Tommy are climbing in Morocco in preparation for his free solo. The crew also prepares, discussing where to place cameras to best capture Alex’s climb while minimizing distractions and interference. Producer Jimmy Chin discusses the ethical dilemma of creating this documentary knowing Alex may die on camera. The camera then cuts to Alex receiving an MRI in order to understand his brain’s response to fear.

The filmmakers cut to fall 2016 when Alex sprains his ankle while climbing the freeblast slab on El Capitan with equipment. Although his foot is swollen, Alex continues to climb in fear of his schedule being delayed. The camera then cuts to Alex and Sanni carving pumpkins with Tommy and his wife and children. This prompts Alex to describe his upbringing to the camera: the word “love” was not used in his household, as his father lacked the ability to form emotional bonds. The camera then cuts to Alex and Tommy rappelling down El Capitan. As the camera pans across the summit, Alex’s route is outlined and he discusses the areas about which he is apprehensive. Alex focuses on the Teflon corner and the boulder problem, which are alternative pathways up the same section. The preparation of the crew is again mentioned: there are interviews with the crew who discuss camera placement and the risk of Alex dying. Then, talking to the camera, Alex admits that he does not want his friends to see him die if he falls while free soloing. The camera then cuts to a trial run, in which Alex climbs El Capitan with equipment but stops after the freeblast slab. Jimmy as a result grows apprehensive of filming Alex, fearful it will put unnecessary pressure on him.

The film jumps to June 3, 2017, when Alex free solos El Capitan. On the day of the climb, Sanni leaves and expresses her apprehensions. The camera cuts to Alex’s free solo climb of El Capitan as the crew narrates his progress. The crew is nervous as Alex completes the boulder problem; one cameraman turns away. Alex successfully climbs the boulder problem, continues with his climb, and completes the free solo. He is shown celebrating at the top with Jimmy and Sanni over a phone call.

The documentary ends with information on the climb—Alex completed it in 3 hours and 56 minutes—and Alex contemplating his next steps.


Prior to filming, directors Vasarhelyi and Chin struggled with the ethical ramifications and decisions behind creating Free Solo knowing Honnold may die on camera.[9] They ultimately decided to go through with the film and devoted some time to documenting its own production process, with director Jimmy Chin and his camera crew (all experienced climbers themselves) discussing the challenge of not endangering climber Alex Honnold by distracting him or pressuring him to attempt the climb at all. According to director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, filming while not endangering Honnold was achieved with careful planning and practice.[10] As the cameramen were all climbers, they were able to effectively capture Honnold’s climb from different vantage points.[11] The production team captured 700 hours of footage using 12 cameras.[12] This included cameramen on the ground, cameramen on the cliff face, remote trigger cameras, and a helicopter with a 1,000mm lens to capture the 4k video.[11][12] Wireless mics, however, could not be used to record sound from Honnold due to his distance from the cameras.[10] As a result, the filmmakers created a special recording device and had Honnold carry it inside his chalk bag.[10]

The film was made by National Geographic Partners,[13] which at the time of the film's release was majority-owned by 21st Century Fox, with the remainder owned by the National Geographic Society.[14]


Free Solo premiered in the United States on August 31, 2018 at the Telluride Film Festival and in Canada on September 9, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival.[6] It has been shown at multiple film festivals internationally since then.[6] Free Solo was later released in theatres in the USA on September 28, 2018.[6]


Box office[edit]

Free Solo grossed $17.5 million in the United States and Canada, and $11.1 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $28.6 million.[1]

The film made $300,804 from four theaters in its opening weekend, surpassing Eighth Grade and An Inconvenient Sequel, respectively, for the highest per-venue average of 2018 and of a documentary all-time with $75,201.[15] It expanded to 41 theaters in its second weekend, making $562,786.[16] The film grossed $859,051 from 129 theaters in its third weekend and $1 million from 251 theaters in its fourth weekend.[17][18] During its fifth weekend, it earned $1.06 million from 394 theaters, bringing the total box office gross to over $5 million.[19]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 97% based on 157 reviews, with an average rating of 8.2/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Free Solo depicts athletic feats that many viewers will find beyond reason – and grounds the attempts in passions that are all but universal."[20] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 25 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[21]

Writing for Variety, Peter Debrudge praised the pacing of the documentary: "Apart from a slow stretch around the hour mark, the filmmakers keep things lively (with a big assist from Marco Beltrami's pulse-quickening score, the nail-biting opposite of Tim McGraw's soaring end-credits single, "Gravity")."[22] Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair called the film "bracingly made" and thought the filmmakers properly conveyed the challenges and dangers faced by Honnold in his endeavors: "Free Solo's detailed, transfixing portrait of their hero will at least show some sort of barrier to entry, communicating to those eager wannabes that very few people indeed are built quite like Alex Honnold. And thank goodness, in a way, for that."[23]

Michael Hale, London-based journalist for Sight and Sound, praised the filming techniques and the resulting effect.[24] He argued that an image reminiscent of Greek mythology is evoked in Alex Honnold as the height and scale of El Capitan is captured.[24] Film critic for the Globe and Mail John Doyle similarly praised the film, focusing on the “texture” of Free Solo.[25] He specifically praised the tension and intensity when Honnold repeatedly risked death, along with the relatability of Honnold and his girlfriend.[25] Similarly, journalist Sam Wollastan argued that Free Solo effectively captures an amazing athletic feat, the emotional development of Honnold, and the budding romance between Honnold and McCandless.[26] The emotional development is further praised by The Times journalist Jane Mulkerrins, who remarks on the duality of the documentary as it examines the preparation and climb of Alex Honnold along with his relationship with girlfriend Sanni McCandless: “[Free Solo] captures the death-defying climb with vertigo-inducing camerawork. We see Honnold getting ready for the climb… At the same time, the armour of invincibility he's built up over the years fractures when he begins to fall in love with Sanni.”[27]

Scholarly analysis[edit]

Georgetown University professor of English and Film and Media studies Caetlin Benson-Allott argues that Free Solo infringes upon expectations of viewers when Alex Honnold was frequently and unexpectedly at risk to die: “I could no longer trust Vasarhelyi and Chin to deliver the safe spectatorial experience I’d expected, once they’d acknowledged that they were equally committed to filming their subject’s death."[28] Benson-Allott acknowledges his implied death as a mechanism to achieve certain emotional effects, but remarks on its minimal focus on women.[28] Director Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi and girlfriend Sanni McCandless, for instance, are reduced to supporting roles, according to Benson-Allott, while Jimmy Chin is highlighted and depicted as “Free Solo's sole author."[28] Furthermore, Alex Honnold’s depiction ties into gendered stereotypes, argues Benson-Allott: “Not all extreme athletes are men, yet the self-destructive masculinity of these athletes is also imposed on their spectators."[28] These gender-stereotypes are reinforced, contends Benson-Allott, when Honnold criticizes his girlfriend Sanni McCandless for “wanting to be ‘happy and cozy’ rather than pursuing a life-threatening goal."[28]

These analyses are shared by Simon Fraser University professor of History and Geography Joseph Taylor.[29] In his analysis, Taylor remarks on the gendered stereotypes and the contrast between Honnold and McCandless, claiming that Free Solo employs a “hypermasculine narrative”.[29] Taylor also argues that “the soul of the documentary” is the looming possibility of Honnold’s death and the coping mechanisms of his friends and coworkers.[29] Honnold’s lack of fear in the face of likely death, for instance, intimidates his friends and family, eliciting ethical dilemmas and constant apprehensions.[29] Taylor echoes Benson-Allott in the depiction of Honnold's challenges and risks throughout the film: “Make no mistake: we are watching the commodification of actuarial suicide."[29]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) and nominee(s) Result Ref(s)
Toronto International Film Festival September 16, 2018 People's Choice Documentary Free Solo Won [5]
Hollywood Music in Media Awards November 14, 2018 Original Score – Documentary Marco Beltrami Nominated [30]
Original Song – Documentary Tim McGraw and Lori McKenna Nominated
IDA Documentary Awards December 8, 2018 Best Feature Free Solo Nominated [31]
Best Cinematography Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer Nominated
National Board of Review January 8, 2019 Top 5 Documentaries Free Solo Won [32]
Cinema Eye Honors January 10, 2019 Audience Choice Prize Free Solo Won [33]
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer Won
Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score Marco Beltrami Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Production Free Solo Won
Producers Guild of America Awards January 19, 2019 Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill Nominated [34]
Directors Guild of America Awards February 2, 2019 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentaries Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Nominated [35]
British Academy Film Awards February 10, 2019 Best Documentary Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Shannon Dill and Evan Hayes Won [36]
Satellite Awards February 17, 2019 Best Documentary Film Free Solo Nominated [37]
Academy Awards February 24, 2019 Best Documentary Feature Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill Won [38]
Primetime Emmy Awards September 14, 2019 Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media within an Unscripted Program Free Solo Won [39]
Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Won
Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaefer Won
Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program Bob Eisenhardt Won
Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction Program (Single or Multi-Camera) Deborah Wallach, Filipe Messeder, Jim Schultz, Roland Vajs and Nuno Bento Won
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Nonfiction Program (Single or Multi-Camera) Tom Fleischman, Ric Schnupp, Tyson Lozensky and Jim Hurst Won
Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special (Original Dramatic Score) Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts Won


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  3. ^ Free Solo Movie Review Common Sense Media.
  4. ^ 'Free Solo': How filmmakers avoided kill Alex Honnold as he climbed USA Today.
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  18. ^ Brooks, Brian (October 21, 2018). "'Mid90s' Off To Far From Middling Start; 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' & 'Wildlife' Solid In Bows – Specialty Box Office". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  19. ^ Brooks, Brian (October 28, 2018). "'Suspiria' Opens Big with Year's Best Average; 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Solid: Specialty Box Office". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
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  26. ^ Wollastan, Sam (2019). "Fighting a Single-Handed Battle Against Gravity: Alex Honnold Scaled the World's Toughest Clim El Capitan on His Own and without a Rope. Thanks to an Oscar-Winning Film, the World has Now Noticed". Irish Times.
  27. ^ Mulkerrins, Jane (2018). "He Hangs on by His Fingertips for Four [...]: When Alex Honnold Scaled the El Capitan Rock Face in California Unaided, it Confirmed His Reputation as the Most Fearless Free Climber on the Planet. An Astonish Documentary Recorded the Remarkable Feat, but do You have the Nerve to Watch it?". The Times.
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External links[edit]