Friday, October 9, 2015

Film Review: Everest

I had significant concerns about the film, Everest. In the trailer, it looks suspiciously like the same type of garbage that we saw in films like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit. I was also very concerned that Hollywood was going to create something out of the 1996 Everest Tragedy that was disrespectful to both those that died and those that lived...

Arguably, the 1996 Everest Tragedy is one of the most well known incidents in the history of mountaineering. The film binds together several books, including Jon Krakauer's best selling Into Thin Air, Anatoli Boukreev's The Climb, and Beck Weathers' Left for Dead. But these books are by no means the only narratives out there. Several other books were written about the incident as well, including, After the Wind, by Lou Kasischke, Everest: Mountain without Mercy, by Broughton Coburn, Climbing High: A Woman's Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, by Lene Gammelgaard, and A Day to Die For, by Graham Ratcliffe.


Many of the books paint different individuals as heroes or villains. But they don't all paint the same people as heroes or villains. Indeed, they tend to contradict one another, and it has always been difficult to work one's way through the conflicting narratives to find the "true" story.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film did little to paint anyone as a hero or a villain. Instead, it does it's best to find a few central threads in a large cast of characters to tell the story of two tragic days in May of 1996. And it does find those threads, primarily in the story of Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the New Zealand mountain guide who died high on the mountain and in Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a pathologist from Texas who survived a brutal night on the mountain.

The film's primary weakness is also it's strength. We are interested in Rob and Beck, but there are so many others on the mountain that it's hard to follow them all. Those of us who have read extensively about the incident are capable of keeping a large number of them straight, but it becomes significantly harder when the characters don down suits and oxygen masks. I was reminded of Black Hawk Down in this way. It's similar to that film in that everyone is dressed the same, there are a lot of characters and it's hard to keep everyone straight.

There are a few real people who were not covered in the film as well as they were in the different books. These include Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), the famous American mountain guide; Sandy Hill-Pitman (Vannessa Kirby), the New York socialite; Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert SigurĂ°sson) the Russian high altitude guide; and John Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the now best selling author. Each of these individuals appear in the film, but they regularly fade into the background.

The preceding list includes several of the most controversial people on the mountain. Each of these individuals has been both lionized and condemned in the different accounts. Indeed, both Jon Krakauer and Sandy Hill-Pittman (now going by Sandy Hill) have come out to defend their actions on the mountain. Krakauer has even stated the the film is "total bull."

Certainly Everest doesn't make either of the two look good. Neither of them come out smelling like roses, but it doesn't condemn them either. Honestly, neither of them are in the film enough to truly paint them as much more than one dimensional figures (I'm a reporter!/I'm a socialite!).

And while Krakauer and Pittman have commented on the film, Fisher and Boukreev are no longer here to do so. Fisher died in the tragedy, and Boukreev died a few years later. Neither of the men are portrayed negatively -- Boukreev rightfully looks like a hero -- and Fisher seems like a laid back hippie who believes it will all work out. Boukreev was criticized for guiding without bottled oxygen, and Fisher was criticized for that same laid back style, a style that previously had provided a lot of success.



There is one major problem with the overall Everest narrative. Something didn't feel right about the film. It wasn't until I read, What Disaster Films Miss about Death by James Douglas that I understood. It is really really really hard for a filmmaker to honestly and effectively portray a character who slowly loses the will to live. Hollywood films are all about fighting. Characters fight foes both internal and external. So it's incredibly hard for someone who comes from that background to effectively portray a very realistic non-dramatic death in the mountains...

The most unfortunate thing about this is that Everest is about the best that we can expect from Hollywood. They spent a tremendous amount of money on the film. But without real Himalayan climbers behind both the development of the script and the film shoot, there will never be a completely narrative film the comes out of Hollywood, that "gets it right."

That said Everest is visually stunning. Much of the film was shot in Nepal and feels authentic. And they clearly tried really hard to make the who film feel real. This level of attempted verisimilitude is damaged by two scenes. In the first, Beck Weathers nearly falls off a ladder crossing a crevasse. But of course, there's ice fall and heavy breathing and scary music and it's just dumb. Also the fixed line he's attached to has an unlocked carabiner.

In the second, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), falls off a fixed line somehow and goes ripping down the Lhotse Face...that is until Rob Hall tackles him and self arrests, presumably stopping both of them from sliding off the mountain. After the incident, no one questions why Hansen apparently wasn't on the fixed rope that everyone else was on. It's another dumb moment in a mostly well done film.

And though there is a little bit of Vertical Limit in the aforementioned scenes, and the script could have been better in a few areas, and maybe they needed a little bit more guidance from real Himalayan climbers here and there, the bulk of the film is pretty good and is worth watching...especially for those who have some knowledge of the tragedy.

Everest is certainly not the last word on the 1996 Tragedy. That particular incident will continue to be discussed and debated for decades to come. But for now it presents a perspective on what happened, and it does so in a way that is about as engaging and thoughtful as possible for such a sprawling event...

--Jason D. Martin

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