Everest tragedy comes alive in stunningly shot, absorbing new film
Readers of a certain age may remember the spring of 1997, when the must-read, buzz generating new release was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his account of the tragic Mt. Everest climbing expedition from the year prior. With Everest, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has crafted a cinematographically stunning and emotionally powerful dramatization of the events of that climb. Basing the film not just on Krakauer’s book, but also on other published survivor accounts, screenwriters William Nicholson (Gladiator; Unbroken) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) bring us another a heart-pounding, riveting story of both the best and worst of the human spirit.
For those not familiar with the story, the spring of 1996 saw a record number of climbers attempting to summit Everest (at 29,000 feet, the world’s highest mountain), many of whom were inexperienced. The film focuses on two competing mountaineering teams on the mountain that spring: Adventure Consultants, led by New Zealand guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, excellent) and Mountain Madness, led by American Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal, almost unrecognizable under flowing hair and bushy beard). These two teams ultimately decide to work together after sparring initially (one point of contention was that journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who was writing an article for Outside magazine – which would later become his famous book – chose Hall’s team over Fisher’s). The film details the guides’ determination to get their clients to the top of the mountain no matter what, and it’s this willfulness – along with a series of other mistakes, big and small – that play a part in the death of eight climbers when a brutally severe storm hits the mountain before all climbers are safely down.
Readers of Krakauer’s book (or any of the others about the tragedy) will recognize the key players here: mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), making his second attempt with Hall’s team; Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), the loud and opinionated Texas doctor (in a nice touch, he shows up at the Kathmandu Airport wearing a ‘Dole/Kemp ’96’ t-shirt); and base camp coordinator Helen Wilton (Emily Watson, terrific in a small but key role), among others. Robin Wright and Keira Knightley are big names cast in rather thankless parts as climbers’ wives (of Weathers and Hall, respectively), but manage to hold their own in the back-at-home scenes, no small feat considering the excitement of the on-the-mountain shots. Watson and Knightley actually share one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes of the film, a small but truthful moment that resonates just as much as the equally powerful action sequences.
And powerful they are. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino brings us awe-inspiring and breathlessly beautiful aerial shots of Everest (although many of the on-the-mountain scenes were actually shot in the Dolomites). Shots of the climbers making their way over huge crevasses on ledges, ladders, or bridges will have your stomach drop (especially if you see the picture in 3D, which, while not totally necessary, adds a certain verisimilitude to the proceedings).
One small quibble with some of the shots, though, is that with all the puffy down jackets, wool hats, and sunglasses, telling the characters apart in a lot of the scenes is difficult, especially if you aren’t already familiar with the who’s-who of the expedition teams. But, ultimately, it’s enough to know that if someone’s on screen, you’re rooting for them, and that’s probably the point; the story, like Nicholson’s Unbroken and Beaufoy’s 127 Hours, is ultimately one about human courage and survival.
In fact, you may find yourself wondering why anyone would even put himself in such a risky situation. In one telling scene, Krakauer does ask his fellow climbers why they want to climb the mountain; at first they laugh and jokingly respond with Everest pioneering moutaineer George Mallory’s famous “Because it’s there” quote, before providing various answers, none of which satisfy Krakauer. Perhaps the best answer comes from Doug Hansen, who alters Mallory’s quote slightly by responding, “Because I can.” Besides being utterly gripping entertainment, then, Kormákur’s film also serves as a startling examination of hubris.
Should the climbers be lauded or criticized for jeopardizing their lives, and subjecting their loved ones to potential loss and grief? Kormákur doesn’t give us any easy answers, but, like all good filmmakers, lets us consider the question, by showing us the bravery of those on the mountain, and the sorrow of the families who lose loved ones. And, as renowned Russian climber and Mountain Madness guide Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) says with great gravitas at one point, “The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Indeed.
Everest opens today at Bay Area IMAX theaters, and more widely at regular theaters next Friday, September 25th.