September 28, 2015 by Zack
Growing up, I had a fascination with Mount Everest. I still have a National Geographic issue that focused on the mountain. I had fantasies of one day ascending and climbing to the summit. Then, I read “Into Thin Air”, Jon Krakauer’s account of what’s now known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, and it’s not really on my to-do list anymore. Not only because of what happens to the climbers, but Krakauer did such a fine job of putting you on that mountain with them that you could feel what they were going through, without having to actually experience it yourself. I swear at one point I may have even developed HAPE.
There was one attempt in the late 1990’s to adapt the book into a film, but it was a low level TV film that was panned and forgotten about. I had always thought the story deserved a big budget, the 5 star treatment, and when I read about this upcoming film, I thought I was finally going to get that.
I’d say what we do get is a 3 star treatment. It’s not wasted time, but it doesn’t capture what Krakauer was able to. He is a master storyteller, but surely there should’ve been someone who could’ve brought his story to life. Then again, “Everest” is not technically based upon his account. He is represented in the film, by actor Michael Kelly, but his perspective is somewhat marginalized. In fact, the flaw in the film is that it compromises the most gripping aspect of the story, which is the personal stories of those involved.
The film focuses on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, quickly becoming a favorite of mine in recent cinema), a likable and bright expedition leader of a firm called Adventure Consultants. The name sounds like one of Enron’s fictional off shoots that Andrew Fastow would’ve come up with, but nevermind. He is hired commercially and leads somewhat unskilled climbers and regular climbers alike to summit Everest. His 1996 crew includes Krakauer, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who is getting up in age where he won’t be able to climb Everest realistically after that year. There’s a Japanese climber, Yasuko Nambo (Naoko Mori), who is one summit away from completing the Seven Summits, and would be the second Japanese woman to do so. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) is also along, who has experience climbing but is a doctor by trade.
They are joined at base camp by a rival company, Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a little more of a free spirit than Hall, but likable just the same. Things get testy as too many climbers begin to bottleneck the expedition further up the mountain, and as weather shifts, it becomes dangerous to ascend.
This is all well done in the film, making you feel the tension of the climbers who are getting more annoyed at waiting than they are fearful of the possibility of dying on the mountain. But when the winds pick up and avalanches begin to threaten them, their attitudes change into something more urgent and critical. They look out for each other, try to help one another–they’re all in it together. But the mountain is one cruel mistress. And things start to fall apart once the summit is completed by many of the climbers.
There is so much going on, so much tension, that at times it is hard to bear. You’re gripping your seat in anticipation, hoping they make it. If you don’t know the story, it’s all the more suspenseful. But even as I had known the story and the fates of all the climbers, I still felt captivated by the film’s pace.
Where it somewhat falls apart is after the dust has cleared, and we’re left with some aftermath of what happens to some of these characters. Because we never were able to become invested in them as people, it’s hard to wrap your heart around the concluding scenes, except in the way you would reading a tragic news story. The point of Krakauer’s story was to bring you into these peoples’ conditions and strife through the expedition, so that when you read what happens to them, your heart breaks into a million pieces. Sure, they’re paying a lot of money and are wealthy people; but their aim is true and their ambition is genuine. No one deserves to die just because they want to challenge it. That’s part of the adventure and the allure of climbing Everest. When you arrive at base camp, you’re already about halfway up the mountain. It’s deceptive. It’s mild, there’s no snow, you can wear shorts. Once you make it to Camp One, it’s game on.
The film does bring you onto that mountain, but you still feel like you’re watching something rather than living it, something “Into Thin Air” did brilliantly. The film ultimately treats its characters like throwaways, and that’s a shame. Especially in the case of Beck, who had an incredible story of his own. And not only that, the cast has so much depth you wonder how they put the budget together to get all of these people to play such condensed characters. Keira Knightley (who has the closest performance to something Oscar worthy) as Rob’s wife, helplessly far, far from the mountain, back home. Robin Wright plays Beck’s wife. Sam Worthington plays Guy Cotter, another climber, and sympathetic character. Emily Watson plays Helen Wilton, a dispatcher at base camp. It’s a beautiful cast, and all of them do their best with their meager roles. But ultimately, the mountain wins out, and maybe it has to. Maybe it’s impossible to get that much depth from a 2 hour film. And a mini series may drag out the story too long. In the end, it’s a flawed film, but it is a well done film. It is shot wonderfully, and most of the pace of the film is fine, by director Baltasar Kormakur. It’s just a shame that the narrative gets lost in the storm as well, because it is one amazing story of survival and heartache. I’d recommend seeing this film–but as a companion, I recommend reading “Into Thin Air” even more.