Free Solo Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Film
Free Solo won an Oscar for best documentary. It’s the first climbing film to receive such broad mainstream acclaim. 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 Free solo 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.
Free solo isn’t only physical
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.
Shortly after his lone ascent in 2017, Honnold provided some insight into what had motivated him to delve into the huge unknown. “For a few hours on El Cap, I got to actually experience perfection.” At the Oscars, it was the documentary chronicling precisely this physical and psychological perfection that received the most prestigious recognition in the entire film industry.