Free Solo

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Free Solo
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
Budget$2 million[1]
Box office$29.4 million[2]

Free Solo is a 2018 American documentary film directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin[3] that profiles rock climber Alex Honnold on his quest to perform the first-ever free solo climb of a route on El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, in June 2017.[4][5]

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.[6] It was released in the United States on September 28, 2018 and grossed over $28 million.[7]

The film received acclaim from critics and numerous accolades, including winning Best Documentary Feature at the 91st Academy Awards.[8][9]


Climber Alex Honnold has been dreaming of free-soloing the 3,000 feet (900 m) rock wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a feat no one has performed. His choice of big wall climbing route on El Capitan is called Freerider, a route that was created by Alexander Huber in 1998, and which is graded at 5.13a (7c+) in difficulty. No climber has ever completed a big-wall free solo at such a grade of difficulty in rock climbing history. Honnold, who has completed Freerider several times with protection equipment, is a shy loner, who lives in his van with then-girlfriend (now wife) Sanni McCandless.

Alex goes climbing with Sanni, but while Sanni is feeding the rope through a grigri, she makes a mistake 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. In the summer of 2016, Alex and Tommy Caldwell 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. Alex also receives an MRI in order to understand his brain’s response to fear.

In the fall of 2016, Alex sprains his ankle on El Capitan while traditional climbing (i.e., using climbing protection equipment) on the first section of Freerider, the giant multi-pitch slab known as Freeblast and graded at 5.11b (6c). Although his foot is swollen, Alex continues to climb in fear of his schedule being delayed. Around Halloween, Alex and Sanni visit Tommy and his wife and children for carving pumpkins. This prompts Alex to describe his upbringing: the word “love” was not used in his household, as his father lacked the ability to form emotional bonds. Alex and Tommy rappel down Freerider on El Capitan and Alex outlines his route, discussing the areas about which he is apprehensive: one section offers him two alternative pathways on Freerider that he calls "The Teflon Corner" (a right-angled section with a smooth slippery surface), or the famous "Boulder Problem" (a particularly intricate piece of the rock wall that he must finish either with a jump or a wide "karate kick" stance). Both the crew and Sanni suggest abandoning the plan, and Alex admits that he does not want his friends to see him die if he falls while free soloing; he finds out about the death of Ueli Steck and reflects on his own risk-taking. In a trial run, Alex climbs El Capitan with equipment but stops after the slab section of Freeblast. As a result, filmmaker Jimmy grows apprehensive of filming Alex, fearful it will put unnecessary pressure on him.

On June 3, 2017, Alex begins his free solo climb of Freerider on El Capitan; Sanni leaves and expresses her apprehensions. As Alex is climbing, the crew narrates his progress, and watches nervously as Alex completes the "Boulder Problem"; one cameraman turns away as he can't bear to watch. Alex continues with his climb and completes the free solo, and celebrates 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 Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin struggled with the ethical ramifications and decisions behind creating Free Solo, knowing Honnold could die on camera.[10] They ultimately decided to go through with the film and devoted some time to documenting its own production process, with Chin and his camera crew (all experienced climbers themselves) discussing the challenge of not endangering climber Alex Honnold by distracting him or pressuring him at all to attempt the climb. According to Vasarhelyi, filming while not endangering Honnold was achieved with careful planning and practice.[11] As the cameramen were all climbers, they were able to effectively capture Honnold’s climb from different vantage points.[12] The production team captured 700 hours of footage using 12 cameras.[13] This included cameramen on the ground, cameramen on the cliff face, remote trigger cameras, and a helicopter with a 1,000 mm lens to capture the 4k video.[12][13] Wireless mics, however, could not be used to record sound from Honnold due to his distance from the cameras.[11] As a result, the filmmakers created a special recording device and had Honnold carry it inside his chalk bag.[11]

The film was made by National Geographic Partners,[14] 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.[15]


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.[7] It has been shown at multiple film festivals internationally since then.[7] Free Solo was later released in theatres in the USA on September 28, 2018.[7]


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.[16]

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.[17] It expanded to 41 theaters in its second weekend, making $562,786.[18] The film grossed $859,051 from 129 theaters in its third weekend and $1 million from 251 theaters in its fourth weekend.[19][20] During its fifth weekend, it earned $1.06 million from 394 theaters, bringing the total box office gross to over $5 million.[21]

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."[22] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 25 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[23]

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")."[24] 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."[25]

Michael Hale, London-based journalist for Sight and Sound, praised the filming techniques and the resulting effect.[26] He argued that an image reminiscent of Greek mythology is evoked in Alex Honnold as the height and scale of El Capitan is captured.[26] Film critic for the Globe and Mail John Doyle similarly praised the film, focusing on the “texture” of Free Solo.[27] He specifically praised the tension and intensity when Honnold repeatedly risked death, along with the relatability of Honnold and his girlfriend.[27] 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.[28] 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.”[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 [6]
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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'What If He Fell?' The Huge Risks of 'Free Solo' Mean Its Reward Could Be the Best Doc Oscar". Indie Wire. 15 February 2019. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  2. ^ "Free Solo (2018)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved December 9, 2022.
  3. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (February 22, 2019). "A guide to this year's exceptionally good Oscar-nominated documentaries". Vox.
  4. ^ Free Solo Movie Review Common Sense Media.
  5. ^ 'Free Solo': How filmmakers avoided kill Alex Honnold as he climbed USA Today.
  6. ^ a b Nordine, Michael (September 16, 2018). "TIFF 2018 Awards: 'Green Book' Wins the People's Choice Award, Upsetting 'A Star Is Born'". IndieWire. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d "Free Solo Release Info". IMDb.
  8. ^ "Oscar Nominations 2019: The Complete List". Variety. January 22, 2019. Retrieved January 22, 2019.
  9. ^ ""Free Solo" wins Best Documentary Feature". March 25, 2019 – via Oscars on YouTube.
  10. ^ Vasarhelyi and Chin (2018). "What if He Falls". U.S. Newsstream. ProQuest 2127414312.
  11. ^ a b c O'Falt, Chris (October 17, 2018). "At 3,000 Feet, Shooting 'Free Solo' Was More Like 'Mission: Impossible' Than a Documentary". IndieWire. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  12. ^ a b Feinberg, Scott (2019). "Could Free Solo Break through Category Barriers? the Ambitious Film about Climber Alex Honnold Required its Cameramen to be both Climbers and Shooters, a Virtuosic Achievement -- but It Faces Equally Complicated Challenges (its Genre, its Multiple DPs) on the Path to a Cinematography Nomination". Hollywood Reporter. 425: 25–26.
  13. ^ a b Salisbury, M (2019). "Capturing the Drama of a Free Solo Climb Up El Capitan". Broadcast. ProQuest 2174304892.
  14. ^ "Nat Geo Channel to Air Ad-Free 'Free Solo' on Sunday, March 3". Multichannel. February 27, 2019.
  15. ^ O'Falt, Chris (October 3, 2018). "Alex Honnold's Freerider Free Solo: 360 Degree Video". Climbing.
  16. ^ "Free Solo (2018) – Financial Information". The Numbers. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  17. ^ Rubin, Rebecca (September 30, 2018). "'Free Solo' Documentary Climbs Indie Box Office With Best Screen Average of 2018". Variety. Archived from the original on September 30, 2018. Retrieved October 1, 2018.
  18. ^ Brooks, Brian (October 7, 2018). "'Studio 54' And 'Free Solo': It's Still All About The Parties – Specialty Box Office". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  19. ^ Brooks, Brian (October 14, 2018). "'Beautiful Boy' Tops Not-So-Hot Weekend; 'Free Solo' Over $2.1M: Specialty Box Office". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ "Free Solo (2018)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved October 10, 2021.
  23. ^ "Free Solo reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  24. ^ Debruge, Peter (August 31, 2018). "Film Review: 'Free Solo'". Variety. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  25. ^ Lawson, Richard (September 1, 2018). "Review: Free Solo Is a Dizzying, Fascinating Rock-Climbing Documentary". Vanity Fair. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  26. ^ a b Hale, Michael (2019). "Free Solo". Sight and Sound. 29: 102–103. ProQuest 2166689763.
  27. ^ a b Doyle, John (2019). "Watch this and Gasp: Oscar-Winner Free Solo is a Stunner: Alex Honnold's Extraordinary Feat may Prove Stressful to Watch, but the climb—and the intensity of watching it—is breathtaking". The Globe and Mail.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ Xu, Linda (November 15, 2018). "Hollywood Music in Media Awards: Full List of Winners". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  31. ^ Lewis, Hilary (December 8, 2018). "IDA Documentary Awards: 'Minding the Gap' Wins Best Feature". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 21, 2018.
  32. ^ Lewis, Hilary (November 27, 2018). "'Green Book' Named Best Film by National Board of Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  33. ^ Tapley, Kristopher (November 8, 2018). "Hulu's 'Minding the Gap' Ties Cinema Eye Honors All-Time Nominations Record". Variety. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  34. ^ "All Motion Picture and TV Nominations for 30th Annual Producers Guild Awards presented by Cadillac". Producers Guild of America. January 4, 2019. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  35. ^ "DGA Announces Nominees for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Television, Commercials and Documentary for 2018". Directors Guild of America. January 7, 2019. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  36. ^ "Documentary – Free Solo". British Academy Film Awards. 9 January 2019. Retrieved February 10, 2019.
  37. ^ "2018 Awards Nominees". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on November 29, 2018. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  38. ^ "The 91st Academy Awards". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved January 22, 2019.
  39. ^ "Free Solo". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved July 16, 2019.

External links[edit]