3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
Human grit and determination know no bounds, even to the point of neglecting experienced judgment and common sense, in pursuit of ... what, precisely? Bragging rights?
Seems a pretty thin return for risking one’s life.
Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest persuasively conveys the jovial, devil-may-care resolve and physical grit that characterize those bent on conquering Earth’s highest and most dangerous summit. The international cast is convincing, particularly while depicting the 24/7 adrenaline rush that fuels such folks during the weeks of preparation leading up to an ascent.
But this isn’t action-oriented melodrama, in the mold of (for example) Sylvester Stallone’s laughably improbable Cliffhanger. Scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy have based this film’s narrative on the ill-fated 1996 Everest expeditions that turned tragic with the arrival of a particularly nasty blizzard. Allowing for modest artistic license — and with Nicholson and Beaufoy doing their best to adapt sometimes conflicting accounts from the five (!) books written between 1997 and 2014 — the resulting story feels both authentic and even-handed.
But if some of this film looks familiar, there’s good reason: We’ve been here before. The 1998 IMAX documentary of the same title, the giant-screen format’s biggest hit to date, devoted a chunk of its 45-minute running time to this catastrophe; indeed, Kormákur’s new film references the presence of the IMAX production team.
More recently, documentarian David Breashears’ Storm Over Everest focused exclusively on this 1996 climb.
But even the most successful documentaries never achieve the mainstream penetration of a big-budget, Hollywood-type production, and there’s no denying that these events cried for just such treatment. Kormákur’s heartfelt drama likely will be the final word on this subject, and it’s a worthy historical document.
More than once, in fact, I was reminded of British director Charles Frend’s superlative 1948 drama, Scott of the Antarctic, with John Mills starring as the British explorer whose team tried to become the first to reach the South Pole. Kormákur’s new film is in worthy company.
After opening with a brief (and wholly unnecessary) flash-forward to grimmer moments, we backtrack to the preparation phase, as our primary characters are introduced.
Thanks in great part to New Zealand mountaineer-turned-expedition-guide Rob Hall, by 1996 climbing Everest has become a thrill-seeker’s sport du jour (attracting the same sort of risk-takers who’ve purchased tickets for Richard Branson’s proposed Virgin Galactic space voyages). Hall’s Adventure Consultants company, incorporated in 1992, led to a minor wave of imitators, notably the Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a rival firm headed by famed mountaineer Scott Fischer.
In this case, however, commercialized imitation isn’t merely the sincerest form of flattery; it’s dangerous on two levels. The multiplicity of expeditions has encouraged the participation of clients unprepared for what lies ahead; it also leads to an unsettling “traffic jam” once the various expeditions get started. There are only so many ways to climb Everest, and the doomed May 10-11 ascent by Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness collectively included six guides, 16 clients and 15 sherpas.
A Taiwanese team led by “Makalu” Gau Ming-Ho put another 13 people on the mountain at the same time.
Kormákur’s film focuses on the Adventure Consultants group, with seasoned Aussie Jason Clarke playing expedition leader Rob Hall. His clients include brash Texas pathologist Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), an experienced climber making a bid for the “Seven Summits” challenge; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman and adventure enthusiast trying a second time, having failed to summit the previous year; Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist and accomplished climber on assignment for Outside magazine; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a 90-pound, 47-year-old Japanese woman who, having completed six of the Seven Summits, is trying for the seventh ... while simultaneously becoming the oldest woman to summit Everest.
Hall’s team is supported by Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), a fellow guide; Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), Adventure Consultants’ logistics coordinator and Base Camp manager; and Caroline MacKenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), the Base Camp doctor who determines whether clients can continue, or must drop out.
Ordinarily, Hall’s group also would have been accompanied by his wife, Jan (Keira Knightley), but — pregnant with their first child — she’s forced to remain at home. Beck gets the sole remaining nod to family ties, with Robin Wright playing his wife, Peach, who never really accepted her husband’s thrill-seeking fixation.
The Mountain Madness team is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal); his clients and fellow guides are present but — for the most part — faceless and therefore inconsequential. Various other teams and individual climbers party and squabble during the Base Camp prep weeks, but we never get a bead on them.
Brolin is an amiable hoot as the mildly overbearing Beck, who never misses an opportunity to flaunt Texas pride. But the role is a bit deeper than that, and — during Beck’s quieter moments — we sense concern, perhaps even fear, that he may be overestimating his abilities.
Mori’s Yasuko is simply adorable, and she easily wins the greatest share of our hearts and minds; her fellow clients, as well, can’t help cheering her on. Kelly radiates confidence and competence as Krakauer: a solid “good guy” role for a busy character actor well recognized from numerous TV shows.
Hawkes, a superb actor blessed with the ability to sketch a full character with subtle dialog and movement, radiates vulnerability. No question that his “ordinary joe” mailman is this expedition’s weak link, leading Hall to watch him very closely.
Clark and Gyllenhaal are engaging opposites, and deliberately so. Clark’s Hall is all business and caution: a careful and methodical leader who protects his people above everything else (thus justifying his company’s $65,000 client fee). Gyllenhaal’s Fischer, in great contrast, is a latter-day free spirit who thrusts himself into a challenge for the sheer joy of it, and who therefore believes that Hall’s mothering cautiousness takes all the fun out of a climb.
Knightley’s role is small, but she makes the most of it in terms of poignant heft, particularly when Rob and Jan playfully argue over what to name their baby. Wright, in turn, shows plenty of snap during an even briefer part.
Watson’s Helen becomes our surrogate emotional barometer, her increasingly agitated behavior lending weight to the sense of danger. We can see, on the mountain face, as things become grim; but when Helen starts to panic — given how well Watson has imbued her character with intelligence and experience — then we know things are really, really bad.
That said, Kormákur has an irritating habit of demanding tight-tight-tight close-ups from cinematographer Salvatore Totino. It becomes quite distracting, particularly on an IMAX screen, when the camera repeatedly zooms in so close that we see only portions of somebody’s face. This is a lazy TV soap opera trick, intended to enhance the gravity of a given moment ... and it’s wholly unnecessary here.
The situation is grave; we don’t need that sort of hammer-handed emphasis.
One other directorial touch also is off-putting. Although the location cinematography and most of the mountain and climbing footage look real, occasional tighter shots with the actors betray their soundstage origins. The film stock is too bright; the snowy background looks artificial. While I acknowledge the impossibility of placing expensive talent on the actual face of Everest, this sort of “cheating” should have been done more carefully.
On a wholly insignificant note, and likely only for the benefit of folks who remember the 1998 IMAX film, Kormákur and Totino stage one scene — crossing a deep fissure on a horizontal aluminum ladder, as the camera looks straight down (and up) between the rungs — to duplicate that earlier documentary’s identical moment ... albeit with a different dramatic outcome.
Dario Marianelli’s excellent score deftly shadows the action, with a somber undercurrent — initially almost imperceptible — gradually rising, as the story continues, and eventually enhancing the escalating tragedy.
Kormákur’s film is suspenseful and heartbreaking, the outcome still shocking all these years later, even for those who read Krakauer’s best-selling Into Thin Air. Perhaps more than anything else, we’re reminded that Nature cares little for human hubris; climbing Everest would be harrowing under the best of conditions, so it seems unfair that such valiant adventurers should suddenly have to contend with a raging blizzard.
Not that these events stopped, or even slowed, subsequent annual Everest expeditions.
They’re all crazy.