Film Review: Everest (2015)

Everest was always bound to attract a lot of attention. Just as occurred in the aftermath of the actual event, the film will inevitably divide the opinions of climbers and non-climbers alike. I’ve tried to keep reviews of the film at arm’s length until I could form my own opinion. I can guess as to the issues which may attract criticism, though overall I think that Everest was a success.

But before we go on, a Public Service Announcement:
Everest is not a book, neither is it a documentary. It is a feature film.

This seems like an obvious point to make, but if I was an investor I’d probably buy stock in a company that produces creams and ointments in order to soothe the copious amounts of butthurt that accompany movie adaptions of books. Examples? How about any film in the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit franchises.

Let me make this clear. Films are not books. A director has a limited timeframe (generally two hours, Peter Jackson notwithstanding) in which to accomplish a great many things, including but not limited to character development, narrative exposition, visual exposition, ambience and theme. This limited timeframe means that every detail counts. A film can never possibly contain as much detail and nuance as a book. They are two entirely separate art forms and direct comparisons cannot be achieved. It would be like saying a beautiful, well composed photo of the Grand Canyon is a worthless contribution to photography because it doesn’t include the ambient temperature and texture of the rock.

What does this mean for Everest? It means that poetic license has been invoked. It means that events have been altered. It means that characters are just that – characters, not direct representations of the real life counterparts they were modelled upon. It means that the key part of the phrase “Based on a True Story” are the words “Based on”.

The fact of the matter is that no-one truly knows what happened high on the mountain on that fateful day. Survivors were so twisted on hypoxia that we can never have a truly definitive account of what occurred. That makes this story just as legitimate as any other that has been told regarding the event.

As a tale of tragedy, the 1996 Everest Disaster is peerless in its status amongst the mythology of modern climbing. It is so firmly entrenched in our folklore that it is sometimes hard to believe that others have no knowledge or recollection of the event. For those who are unaware, the events of the 10th and 11th of May 1996 claimed the lives of 8 climbers in what was to be the deadliest season on Everest until the recent avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall in 2014.

It attracted a global media frenzy and sparked heated debate over who should be on the world’s tallest mountain and why. It also brought the fringe sport of mountaineering abruptly into the public consciousness, and not necessarily for the better. The event increased in fame (or perhaps infamy) by virtue of several famous memoirs, notably Jon Krakauer’sInto Thin Air, Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, and Beck Weathers’ Left for Dead.

The fact that none of these books could corroborate a consistent chronology alludes to the fact that director Baltasar Kormakur has executed a particularly smooth narrative that eschews the burden of assigning blame. Characters are certainly portrayed as having flaws and foibles, but Kormakur and his script writers Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson stop short of creating a villain. Instead, they’ve opted for a classic man-versus-nature arc, a survival movie that is tense and focuses on the struggles of those involved, both internal and external.

Essentially, the movie follows two protagonists, Rob Hall (brilliantly played by Jason Clarke) and Beck Weathers (played almost as well by Josh Brolin). It follows these two characters closely, often at the expense of others who’ve been previously viewed as major players in the events that transpired, namely Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) and Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson)

Why? Because these two characters allow for substantial development which illustrates the duality of man and the duplicity of alpine environments. On the one hand, you have veteran guide Hall, level-headed and humble. He should have survived with the level of skill and experience he possessed. Then you have Weathers, brash and over-confident. He should have died when left stranded on the Southern Col. It’s this parallel that makes for compelling human interest.

Again, I’ll stress that Weathers is a character and that events may have not played out exactly as portrayed. Author Jon Krakauer has recently derided the film, saying that it was “a load of bull” before pointing would be viewers no further than his own book for clarification on the “facts”. I am personally a big fan of Into Thin Air, but you’ll notice that the title of the film is Everest. It is not, nor was it ever intended as an adaptation of that book. In fact, Krakauer’s book, as thorough and well-researched as it was, came under fire after disagreements in the way he portrayed Boukreev and the actions of Andy “Harold” Harris. Everest side-steps the need for scapegoating by portraying the events as the culmination of a series of mistakes created by a cast of flawed individuals (i.e. human beings).

One thing I did find a little puzzling was the brief and abortive attempt to include some ancillary characters such as the South African guide whose name eludes me and Sandy Hill Pittman. In one scene, we see a useless, hypoxic Pittman being short-roped up the hill by a reluctant Sherpa. The film then proceeds to completely ignore her. I was hoping that this would be an examination of the aspect of dilettantism that attracted so much scorn in the discussions that followed the events, and this was alluded to somewhat in the text exposition in the movie’s introduction. Alas, it was not to be. And also, fuck text exposition. That’s what dialogue was made for.

As the film progresses to its climax, Kormakur and cast have done an admirable job of maintaining pace and building tension. I found the latter half of the film to be pretty gripping, and the sort-of bonus climax with the Pakistani helicopter pilot was fucking nuts.

In relation to technical accuracy, an inevitable sore thumb amongst climbers, the film performs fairly well. There are a few minor inconsistencies that I picked up, but they didn’t detract from the overall experience. Of course, it could never be as meticulously faithful to real life as the esteemed Vertical Limit, so why bother trying really?

Another way in which Everest scored points where others have failed is that it asks the all-important question…. Why? After almost dismissing it with Mallory’s oft quoted throw-away, it attempts a slightly more detailed examination of the subject. I don’t think this was an unqualified success, but it tackles the issue more adroitly than many others have done. The film closes with scenes of remarkable natural beauty to temper the concurrent emotional onslaught. It’s a subtle and deft conclusion to what is a complex and impassioned argument – should we even be there in the first place?

As a climber and a film enthusiast, I enjoyed Everest. It doesn’t explore any ground-breaking terrain (some might say in both the literal and metaphorical sense) but it was engaging, well filmed, well directed and well cast.

As Monty Burns once said “I’m no critic, but I know what I hate. And I don’t hate this.”

Shabbi’s analysis:
3.5 stars out of 5

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
September 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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