Silver Screen: Everest ***1/2
While Eli Roth’s besieged student activists are being chased through the sweltering jungle, just a couple doors down in the movie theater— but on the opposite end of the climatological survivalist spectrum— Jason Clark and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a group of explorers toward icy death in Everest.
Everest is based on the true story about the first mass-casualty event on the mountain since the popularization of adventure hikes to the fabled summit began in the early 1990s. (There have been similar incidents since.) In 1996, a series of calamities stranded members of several different climbing parties at the mountain’s peak, known as “the death zone.” Several climbers lost their lives while others heroically risked their safety in a rescue effort carried out during a harrowing storm.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the story became the basis for journalist Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a 1997 mega-bestseller that was essentially the Angela’s Ashes of icy-mountain survivalist memoirs. I’ll just come right out and admit I never read it. According to an incredibly unscientific survey conducted among people I was at a bar with last Monday who did read Krakauer’s book, the movie sticks pretty close to the facts as written.
Krakauer himself told the Los Angeles Times that Everest was “total bull.” But he also reserved special complaint for a scene late in the movie where, after barely surviving the descent himself, he’s asked if he can help with the rescue effort; he defers because he’s in rough shape. The scene paints him as neither jerk nor wuss, but it seems to have stuck in Krakauer’s craw. Everest director Baltasar Kormákur worked with four other survivors of the trip and claims the film is as accurate as possible.
So believe who you want, Jon Krakauer, or four other people who survived the ordeal, plus some people I know in a bar who read Krakauer’s book.
The explicit veracity of the movie, at least for those of us who weren’t there, is somewhat beside the point. Everest is a compelling film because it eloquently conveys the harsh physical realities of high-altitude mountain climbing and articulates the motivations of the people who undertake it.
Those motivations occupy much of the movie’s first half. Kormákur, working from a sturdy script by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, spends plenty of time preparing for the trek with his characters.
Krakauer (Michael Kelly) is the prize pig among the handful of professional adventure tour groups. He’s on hand to write a first-person account of the trip for an outdoor magazine, the publicity from which could mean big money for the guides next year.
The writer is joined by Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a blustery Texan who traipses up mountaintops to stave off secret depression, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), an affable mailman hoping to inspire the children in his small town who helped him raise money to fund the climb.
The most experienced guide, the sober and savvy Rob Hall (Jason Clark), leads Krakauer’s crew, but there are several other clusters of hikers, including a party led by brash hotshot Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal). As presented, he’s begging to become an icicle from the moment he’s introduced.
The ending is something of a foregone conclusion, so Everest splits its time between establishing the characters and cataloging the whys and wherefores of their demise. Kormákur does a fine job keeping track of all the vectors that will intersect in the tragedy: a brewing storm, a holdup on a perilous ice-ladder bridge over a deep crevasse, and miscommunications that lead to a lack of oxygen tanks and rope.
The depictions of the physical rigors are grueling. A big part of what justifies a dramatization of these events, as opposed to a documentary-style treatment like Nick Ryan’s excellent The Summit, is the genre’s ability to relate the bite of the cold and the razor edge of every windblown iceflake.
But what Everest does best is convey not how people die on a mountain, but why. The climbers were doomed more by their own fervor to reach the summit than anything else. All the external factors could have been managed, but ultimately they were undone by the very forces that drove them to attempt such a feat. There’s a lesson about hubris here, but the stories of these deaths are not just cautionary but stirring. The nobility of their ambition isn’t necessarily voided because they fall prey to it.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.