(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Martin Henderson, Justin Salinger, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Reilly, Ang Phula Sherpa, Tim Dantay, Charlotte Bᴓving. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur
There are a certain type of people who feel compelled to push themselves to the limits. They don’t feel truly alive unless they are facing down death. Most of us don’t require this kind of validation of our own supremacy, but those that do can’t live without it. Thee and me will never climb Mt. Everest simply because we don’t need to. Others, however do it because they have to.
\At one time, Everest was the province of experienced mountain climbers and at that only the best of that breed. However, New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) figured out that there was money to be made in getting ordinary travelers (who could afford it and were in good enough physical condition) to the top of Everest. His company, Adventure Consultants, specialized in getting people to the summit of Everest – the highest place on Earth.
The 1996 climbing seasons sees a proliferation of these sorts of outfits, all clustered in Everest’s base camp. Rob Hall is bringing an experienced team of climbers including Sherpa Ang Doree (Sherpa), Andy “Harold” Harris (Henderson) and clients Doug Hansen (Hawkes) who had nearly made it to the summit the previous year but was turned back by Hall 100 meters from the top, Yasuko Namba (Mori) who was summiting the final of the Big Seven – the seven highest peaks on seven continents – which is an accomplishment only elite climbers ever meet and Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Brolin). Accompanying them is respected writer Jon Krakauer (Kelly) who’d be providing much needed publicity for the company.
At base camp is den mother Helen Wilton (Watson) who would be overseeing the operation from there as well as team physician Caroline MacKenzie (Debicki). A close friend of Rob’s, American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) runs a rival team. Scott is known for being more of a go-for-it guy whereas Rob tends to be more methodical. As the two discover that the sheer number of climbers are creating bottlenecks on the mountain, they determine to work together so as to reduce traffic. Scott’s Russian right hand, Anatoli Boukreev (Sigurösson) is there to lend a hand.
Waiting at home is Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) who is about to give birth to their daughter, an event Rob is planning on being home in Christchurch for. Also at home is Peach Weathers (Wright), a no-nonsense Texas woman who is a mite ticked off at her husband who is undertaking this adventure despite her distinct disapproval – and despite having had eye surgery recently.
After months of preparing, the time for the final ascent to the summit arrives but things start to go wrong almost right away; the Sherpas who were supposed to have fixed the ropes had inexplicably failed to do so, leaving the guides to fix them on trail, causing long delays. The teams end up staying on the peak long past the turnaround time of 2pm. And headed towards them is a monstrous rogue storm. This would be the worst day of fatalities on the mountain (until 2014 when ironically enough an avalanche occurred while the second unit was filming in Nepal would break the record) and who survives and who doesn’t is an act of will and sheer luck.
The story itself is riveting. Those who have read Krakauer’s book on the subject or watched the documentary that was made in 1998 will know in advance who survives but even so there’s a tension here that is right up there with any movie released this year. The performances are for the most part terrific; Clarke has become a very reliable lead although he hasn’t ever had a breakout performance that would mark him as an A-lister and this won’t be the one that does so either, although in many ways it is one of his most memorable pieces of work. Brolin and Hawkes, solid actors both, continue to do impressive work. Watson ends up being the emotional core of the film.
There are some truly heartbreaking scenes here, the most notable being one where the wife of one of the trapped climbers contacts him on satellite phone, urging him to keep moving forward, pleading with him all the time knowing that he is dying even as he speaks to her. We see the horror unfold as Helen keeps in contact with survivors, discovering the grim toll taken by the mountain.
This is almost an impossible story to tell properly; for one thing, giving audiences a sense of the mountain’s size and grandeur really can’t be done with just pictures. Some of the footage was taken on Everest itself but a lot of studio re-creation was done, particularly for some of the more perilous scenes and in all honesty I wasn’t convinced. Still, the story is so compelling that I was able to overlook the flaws of the film and enjoy it for what it was; an adventure and tragedy rolled into one.
Like Meru, this isn’t a movie that really motivated me to want to go and climb Everest on my own. Everest at least makes an attempt to explain why men are willing to climb up to the cruising altitude of a 747 where the air is so thin that the body begins to die, but in the end we never really get a clear picture of why – perhaps because the men doing this thing don’t really know themselves. Oh, Doug Harris does say he’s doing it to prove to his kids that nothing is impossible – even a letter carrier on the summit of Everest – but is the price for a lesson like that truly worth it? I think that a lot of kids whose mothers and fathers didn’t come back from this trip would say it wasn’t.
REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat filmmaking. Some very solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t give us a sense of the majesty or the size of the mountain.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of intense and graphic peril, some gruesome images and a bit of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the bodies of all the victims of this expedition have been found, all but one remain on the mountain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air: Death on Everest
FINAL RATING: 7/10