'Free Solo’ Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film

It's the first climbing film to receive such broad mainstream acclaim

Alex Honnold free-soloing El Capitan (Courtesy National Geographic/Jimmy Chin)
free solo

Free Solo won an Oscar for best documentary. Jimmy Chin’s acceptance speech, before yielding the microphone to his wife and co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: “Holy shit.”

Holy shit, indeed. Free Solo, the first true climbing film to reach a mainstream audience, chronicled Alex Honnold’s 2017 solo of El Capitan’s Freerider route. It has already earned almost $19 million at the box office, and won best documentary at the British Association of Film and Television Arts several weeks ago. The film benefited from Honnold’s thoughtful charm on camera, and Chin and Vasarhelyi’s incredible access during Honnold’s years-long training process, including while he was thousands of feet off the ground without a rope.

But, like Man on Wire, which won an Oscar in 2007, Free Solo’s drama isn’t only physical. As Honnold told Lisa Chase last year, Chin and Vasarhelyi could have oversold the physical risks, but instead stayed close to Honnold’s emotional experience, particularly as his friends and girlfriend Sanni McCandless contended with the possibility of his death. Vasarhelyi saw that Honnold was sometimes unreachable, and her intuition made the film great. It has deservedly reached a wide audience.

Still, climbing hasn’t ever been a mainstream sport in the U.S., and it feels unexpected that the two mass-appeal climbs of the past decade are Honnold’s free solo and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s 2015 first ascent of the El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, which was covered pitch by pitch in the New York Times. Most climbers are sport climbers or boulderers. A tiny percentage will ever get on El Cap, and many fewer will ever solo a hard route.

So for climbers, it may be strange days ahead. After the Dawn Wall, it was important for climbers to point out that Caldwell and Jorgeson had freed the world’s hardest ever multi-pitch sport route, but not the world’s hardest ever free solo or the world’s hardest-ever sport climb. Free Solo’s reception in the broader culture—where all kinds of rock climbing are seen as daredevilry—has been slightly different than in the climbing world, and Free Solo has already created some confusion about Honnold’s status. CNN called Honnold the “greatest rock climber of all time”; The Washington Post said Free Solo was a top-notch mountaineering movie. Honnold was a good person to make a documentary about, but it’s weird that nobody in the real world knows who Adam Ondra or Alex Puccio are. “The bottom line is, free soloing sucks,” Climbing magazine editor Matt Samet wrote in 2017. People die too easily, and climbers know how many free soloists are gone. Climbing will keep covering Honnold because he’s newsworthy, Samet wrote, but not with much enthusiasm.

Anyone who has watched Free Solo has probably wondered how a climber as obsessive as Honnold has held up on a film tour that began in September. (Hopefully he has a good travel hangboard.) Last night, after an evening of pre-Oscars parties, Honnold texted that he was feeling good, and humbled that so many people had seen the film. But the ceremony was “the end of a very long ride,” he wrote. “We’ve been touring with the film nonstop for six months so one way or another it’s pretty great for it to finally wrap up.”

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