Directed by Baltasar Kormakur
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly,Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, Keira Knightley
The 1996 Mount Everest disaster saw the combination of freak weather and a ridiculously crowded climbing season result in the deaths of some eight people. It’s a contentious issue: it seems that just about everyone who survived the tragedy wrote a book about it, some specifically to provide a counterpoint to the writing of others, such as climbing guide Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb, a response to claims in John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
Everest, however, is a movie, and although it draws on actual events and there can be no doubt that credited screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy did their homework, in this context it’s best to put aside any ideas about accuracy or fidelity beyond the broadest, and judge it solely as a dramatic film – and as such, it’s a truly impressive achievement.
Everest focuses on the expedition led by New Zealand mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) through his company, Adventure Consultants. Hall ,we are told, pioneered the notion of commercial mountaineering, whereby experienced guides would train and lead non-professional climbers on summit attempts, a practice criticised by many in the mountain climbing community. However, the film takes pains to depict Hall as a careful, conservative man, always mindful of his clients’ safety.
This is contrasted by Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Scott Fischer of rival company Mountain Madness. Fischer here is something of an extreme sports cliche, a man who pushes the limits and expects his clients to be capable of looking after themselves. It’s inevitable, then, that these two polar opposites must join forces in an effort to make sure their teams reach the peak.
I say “inevitable,” but, of course, Everest is based on real events, not narrative convenience (at least, no more than is necessary to weld the raw stuff of life into a satisfying story, one hopes). However, there are a few cliches that pass muster purely by dint of being grounded in actuality. Hall has a pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) at home, waiting for news of his safe return, for crying out loud, while John Hawkes plays Doug Hansen, a plucky mailman whose latest Everest attempt is sponsored by the children of his local school. If it weren’t the truth, would you credit it?
It is the truth, though, as is the story of arrogant Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose incredible ordeal beggars belief, and Russian mountain guide Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson), who survived the whole thing and rescued a number of people, all without the use of oxygen. Everest is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and though it dances around the question of why people undertake such incredibly dangerous endeavours – largely at the behest of journalist Krakauer, played by Michael Kelly, along to document the climbing season – by and large, it all comes back to the old adage, “because it’s there.”
Everest‘s sense of “there” is remarkable, with the reality of the film’s setting never in doubt. Director Baltasar Kormakur and his crew combine location shooting at Italy and Nepal – including Everest Base Camp – and studio work at Pinewood Studios in England with what must have been a prodigious amount of CG to build up a wholly believable picture of Everest and its environs. The place feels real, not generic but specific in way that is idiosyncratic – there are stone and ice formations that are damn near alien – but wholly believable. There’s never a moment when you doubt what’s happening onscreen, and the film’s use of 3D enhances the verisimilitude; when characters are crossing dizzying crevasses in the ice or weathering sudden avalanches, you feel it.
Just as you feel the incredible risk they’ve put themselves in. Disaster in the Death Zone – anywhere above 8.000 metres, where human beings simply cannot survive for long on the thin air – is sudden and ruthless. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly and brutally. Death here is capricious as well; characters are doomed through simple bad luck or minor mistakes, while others push through seemingly unbeatable rigors to live another day. It’s gripping and it’s sobering: no amount of preparation is proof against a fatal mishap, and the sometimes random nature of the tragedy is at times almost unbearable.
An engrossing look at an extreme field of endeavour, the people drawn to it and the disasters that can befall them, Everest ticks pretty much every box.