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Film Review: Everest

Everest (2015; Directed by Baltasar Kormákur)

Like an expert high-altitude mountaineer, Everest is lean and fit, methodical and well-prepared, capable and no-nonsense. The film depicts (a particular version of) the 1996 Mount Everest disaster and renders its setting and its tragic based-on-true-life events in the high Himalayas with accuracy and fidelity (although that is not beyond dispute) as well as with real emotion, but does not become bogged down in or clouded by sentimentality (except, maybe, for one brief moment). It employs the full technological toolset of contemporary big-budget filmmaking to craft a convincing portrayal of the terrible and imposing scope of the world’s highest mountain. But Everest is above all an intensely human-focused drama which never sways from its emphasis on our frailty and our strength in the face of the natural world’s mortal dangers.

Everest was directed by Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur, who has helmed several American English-language studio action thrillers of little or no consequence (mostly starring Mark Wahlberg, which testifies to the “no consequence” assessment), as well similarly-pitched films in his native country and language. If this resume attests to a certain lack of stylistic distinction, then it has at least honed his skill and technique in the interest of crafting the kind of screen narrative of direct effectiveness that Everest demands. If Kormákur does not precisely practice a Paul Greengass shaky-cam cinema-verité level of “you are there” realism (he can’t resist indulging in more than a few sweeping helicopter shots of high-altitude mountainous ridges, nor should he), his film displays nary an inkling towards stylization or abstraction.

This realist approach is almost certainly as it should be, given the material (can you imagine, say, a David Lynch dreamscape mountaineering movie?). For those unfamiliar with the events that led to the deaths of eight climbers on Mount Everest in May 1996… well, I won’t be telling you about them in great detail, but Everest (the screenplay is by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) does solid work establishing the key players, the location, the conditions, the obstacles, and the steady, inexorable drip of problems, mistakes, and unforeseen eventualities that paved the path to one of the worst (though far from the only) multiple-fatality climbing seasons in Everest’s history.

Everest focuses on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealander who pioneered guided climbs of Everest for paying clients, thus allowing non-expert alpinists to stand on the roof of the world (for a hefty fee). He leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home and jets to Nepal to lead his latest expedition of customers up the mountain. The key climbers among his clients are outspoken Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), humble mailman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), Japanese woman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), and journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), whose bestselling book on the events on Everest that spring, Into Thin Air, is the best-known (but maybe not the best) account of the disaster (Krakauer was fiercely critical of the film’s portrayal of events and of his role in them in particular, although the screenwriters had access to sources on the events that he did not). Also ascending are Hall’s friend and rival summit group leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Fischer’s top guide, Anatoli Boukreev (Icelandic actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), and many other guides, sherpas, and paying customers who play more minor roles in the drama on the mountain.

Kormákur builds towards the eventual attempt on Everest with a conventionally effective sense of tension and foreshadowing, holding off on a glimpse of the peak like it’s the shark in Jaws. The screenplay sprinkles potential pitfalls like a crumbtrail of impending doom as the climbers approach the summit: a crowded Base Camp portending a bottlenecked ascent, fixed ropes that haven’t been fixed, cached oxygen tanks that haven’t been cached, and a distant storm tracking ever closer to the mountain. Everest unspools reams of mountaineering jargon, a world’s worth of immersive terms that never overwhelms a viewer but sinks them instead into the immersive milieu of the Himalayas.

As the situation in the “death zone” (basically anywhere above 8,000 metres, where there is too little oxygen to support human life) unravels into a confused white-out slow-motion catastrophe, Hall’s Adventure Consultants team in Base Camp proves invaluable as a central fulcrum for Everest‘s steadily devastating narrative and emotional swirl. Sam Worthington’s stoic Guy Cotter and Elizabeth Debicki’s ashen Dr. Caroline Mackenzie process the unfolding tragedy in their own ways, but the unquestioned core is Emily Watson’s camp den mother Helen Wilton. Watson might be the most compelling crier in the past quarter-century of cinema, which sounds like backhanded praise but I can assure you is not, and she is used to full effect by Kormákur’s fixed gaze. Knightley could use some of Watson’s sublime conviction, saddled as she is with Jan’s (accurate enough) role of loitering on beds and couches back home and talking tearfully on the phone to her terribly endangered husband.

Hall’s fate is at the centre of Everest, but the sub-fates of Fischer, Namba, and especially Hansen and Weathers branch off in the text as sketches of sadness, painful irony, and dogged survivalism. Although it finds hints of sunshine in the blizzard of death, this is not a film of moral lessons or grand metaphors, be they challenging or comforting. Victims of Mount Everest slip silently to their ends or are frozen like stone statues on the unforgiving slopes, and Sagarmatha endures as a simultaneous magnificent dare and dire warning. If Everest treats a tragic loss of life that need not have happened with requisite gravity, then it also does not pretend that this loss of life had a deeper meaning. It’s a document suffused with necessary sadness, but it’s entirely too sober to become an elegy.

Perhaps climbing Mount Everest doesn’t have to mean anything. The climbers discuss their motivations for tackling the world’s highest peak shortly before setting off for the summit, but not before intoning George Mallory’s famous explanation of the quest that would claim his life: “Because it’s there.” But Mount Everest is always there, and those who attempt to conquer it can claim no such certain permanence, especially in the face of its lethal challenges. Mallory’s arrogant quip is celebrated as the great epigram of alpinism but its glib directness divests the herculean odyssey to the roof of the world of its symbolic significance. Everest is a film crafted in the spirit of those words: tactile, tangible, concrete, like the great mountain itself. It’s a strong film, in both senses of the word, and it trudges with dogged determination to surprising heights.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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