Film Review: Everest – The Story of the Worst Disaster on the World’s Highest Mountain

A climbing expedition on Mt. Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm.
Directed by Baltasar Kormakur
Starring Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Josh Brolin, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal.
If I am honest I have to say that, to date, I have climbed zero mountains. What I have done though is haul myself up the side of Croagh Patrick one wet August afternoon a few years ago but I don’t think that really counts. For me mountains, like most sports, are things to be admired from the safety of an armchair – while I played football and hurling at the most basic, basic level with not a hint of success or prowess as a youth, my lack of skill found me warming a subs bench on an almost continual basis. This has not diminished my love and affection of those sports though, and mountaineering is something that falls into the very same category. When I was a kid I watched a film called The Eiger Sanction, a Clint Eastwood thriller set in the Swiss Alps. I was struck by the beauty of the mountain, but it also proved to be the beginning of a deep fascination with and respect for all the aspects of mountain climbing and for those people who decide that climbing Everest or K2 without bottled oxygen or scaling shear vertical faces without ropes is worth giving a shot. I can’t fathom doing either of those things but, to take George Mallory’s famous quote and turn it on its head, if it’s there to be done then there will always be someone to do it. And for those who wish to climb a mountain the height of a 747’s cruising altitude, Everest remains the one, the goal.

 

Everest Poster - HeadStuff.orgMany years ago I picked up a book called Into the Wild and it introduced me to the author Jon Krakauer. The front cover told me that Krakauer, an accomplished amateur climber himself, was also the author of Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s own first hand account of the Everest disaster of 1996. Picking through the rest of the books I soon found Into Thin Air. Buying both I nipped on home and set about reading them. In truth I devoured them, Into Thin Air in particular. At that time I knew a little about the Everest disaster and, like the saying goes, a little knowledge is often worse than none at all. I knew that a summit attempt went wrong and several people died, but not the details, not the series of events that culminated in the greatest Everest disaster to date. While this film is not based on Krakauer’s first hand account of that tragedy, for years after reading Into Thin Air, I felt that it was a story just waiting to be filmed, one that needed to be told. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of those fateful days in May 1996, Baltasar Kormakur has given us that film.

 

Rob Hall, a New Zealand mountaineer and Everest veteran, is the leader of commercial expeditions to the summit of Everest, taking amateur climbers, who only ever dreamed of Everest, to the top of the world with his company Adventure Consultants. Hall, reknowned for his safety, has successfully taken dozens of clients to the top of Everest, one of the most dangerous places on earth and in April of 1996 he leads an expedition of 11 climbers up the unforgiving southern slopes of Everest. Encountering severe and un-seasonal weather as they reach the summit, Hall and his team now face a race against time to get down and a fight for survival as they do.

 

Of all the films released this year, Everest is the one I anticipated more than any other. I was intrigued and maybe a little excited to see how it was going to shape up (that might sound a little perverse given that this film tells a story of 8 people perishing on Mount Everest). As the lights dimmed in the cinema I remembered Krakauer’s book, a story that touched me close to ten years ago and I wanted to see how Baltasar Kormakur, known for his well-crafted action thrillers Contraband and 2 Guns, tackled what is a very sensitive subject matter. Sensitive is the key word here and, this may be a strange criticism, Kormakur handles the unfolding narrative and the realisation of the rapidly deteriorating conditions a little too well, a little too sensitively. Let me explain – take Titanic as an example, it took a truly tragic event and ramped up the teary drama to the max, wringing as many sobs and tears from the audience as possible. If you didn’t walk out of that film just a little shook then James Cameron didn’t do his job right. I am not advocating those weepy kind of dramas but Everest is a film you could almost forgive for falling, willingly, into the thick saccharine soup of sentimentality but Kormakur, to his credit, avoids this. It was a very brave decision not to dramatise the events and in some ways the viewer may feel a little short-changed by this. Some will want the teary ‘I love you’s’ and the brave, heroic rescue attempts that prove to be folly on the deadliest place on the planet. If you want a Titanic-esque tearjerker or a Notebook type of weepy love story then Everest may disappoint you. This feels almost like a documentary; Kormakur has gone to such lengths to recreate the events instead of dramatise them that the film unfolds organically, almost effortlessly. Though Jon Krakauer has spoken out against the film and its portrayal of the events, of him in particular, other climbers have praised the filmmakers for telling the story as it happened and not embellishing the tragedy.
 
In his honest and quite tender handling of the events on Everest, Kormakur probably does himself a creative disservice by not ramping up the emotion. Not at any stage does Everest feel fake or forced, but it does feel a little undercooked and you wonder is there more he could have done with this. In handling the tragedy with care, Kormakur does not spend much time in trying to explain the cause of the disaster. Bad weather and a decision made by the heart as opposed to the head are put forward as the main reasons for the deaths of eight people. Of course, a two-hour film cannot pour over all the causes of the tragedy but Krakauer’s book does delve into it in more detail, explaining the human error, confusion, stubbornness and bad timing that led to the summit push being hours behind schedule, thus closing the climb window.
Everest - HeadStuff.org
A film of this ilk, a human drama, will stand or fall on the strength of its cast and Everest has one of the best ensemble casts since Glengarry Glen Ross. There is not a dud note to be had among the main actors, Sam Worthington in particular stands out. He adds an understated strength and compassion to his portrayal of Guy Cotter in what is a little more than a cameo. Though he may only be on screen for a matter of minutes, he really excels. The same can be said of Jake Gyllenhaal; though only featured in the film for a few minutes as well, his portrayal of Scott Fischer, a fellow leader for a rival company but friend of Rob Hall’s, is quite something. Gyllenhaal, the Hollywood leading man, seems very content to sit back for a change. Fischer, a relaxed and gregarious character in real life, is wonderfully realised by Gyllenhaal. Fischer, famous for his “attitude, not altitude” take on climbing couldn’t have asked for a better portrayal on screen than Gyllenhaal. Josh Brolin, another Hollywood leading man, also stands back from the fore. His portrayal of Beck Weathers, the bold, brassy Texan, initially ruffles a few feathers before becoming the miracle of the mountain. Brolin is easily one of the best parts of this film, carefully building the extremes of his personality and the patronising of his fellow climbers while showing great kindness as well. Emily Watson, the ever-dependable character actress who, over 20 years of peerless performances, has never really gained the recognition she deserves gives a beautiful and tender performance as Helen Wilton, the Base Camp manager and Hall’s right hand person. It is through Wilton that the information trickles through to those still in Base Camp about the fate of those stuck on the South Summit.

 
While waxing lyrical about Watson, Brolin, Worthington and Gyllenhall and the strength of the ensemble cast, Everest centres itself around Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants team. With Australian actor Jason Clarke cast as Hall, Everest needed an immense performance from him and thankfully he delivers in absolute spades. Held in the highest esteem by fellow climbers, Hall became synonymous with Everest after successfully guiding 39 people to the summit with zero casualties. Loved and respected, Clarke had massive shoes to fill, a challenge that he does not shirk. He is the heart of this film and though his clients pay him to take them to the summit, Clarke conveys Hall’s humanity so well. You know that he cares for each and every one of them, wanting each to achieve their goal of climbing the highest peak in the world. Cradling a crying climber who has just touched the summit of Everest, he tells her that is so proud of her and I defy even the hardest of hearts not to well up just a little. So convincing is Clarke that you forget he’s an actor, he is Rob Hall. Clarke handles the complexities of the role extremely well; Hall was known as the “mountain goat” or the “show” as he was the safest climber on Everest, the only show in town and he struggled with keeping people safe while keeping their dreams alive. Indeed it could be this desire to help those who want to summit Everest that attributed to the tragic outcome of this expedition. Clarke is absolutely remarkable, giving one of his strongest performances yet.

 

Considering the subject matter you would be forgiven for thinking that this would, or should, be a big, bold Hollywood blockbuster, choc full of breathless, cliffhanger moments. It is a story ripe for visual storytelling, for special effects and high tension, but that is not what Everest is about. There is in fact only one Hollywood-esque moment, shown quite heavily in the trailer, of Josh Brolin hanging from the edge of ladder across a dark, yawning crevasse. While making a great dramatic moment, it sits a little uneasy with the rest of the film as Kormakur focuses instead on the human drama instead of the action. This is not Cliffhanger. This is not Vertical Limit. Everest is something far more intimate, and far more special.

 

Mount Everest is presented here in all its cruel beauty yet Kormakur is careful to not make her the villain of this piece. Everest is just another character, one that neither helps nor hinders Hall and his team. She rises high above the climbers and invites them to tackle her southern slopes, you don’t blame the mountain for the outcome but you also don’t find yourself blaming anyone else. Kormakur ensures that you leave the cinema knowing that the Everest disaster was an accident and while the mountain grants some a safe passage, some will never return to base camp. On average, 10% of those who reach the summit do not make it back down and those bodies are left on Everest, their final resting places quite literally being the final place they rested before a twist of fate or a change of weather threw them to the mercy of the mountain. One of the final shots in Everest highlights this very fact and as it rolls towards its inevitable conclusion I have no shame in admitting that I was in tears. I dare you to spend two hours in the company of these characters and not feel emotional.

 

While not being for everyone, Everest is a powerful and unsentimental film tackling the greatest single tragedy in Everest’s history. Such is the tragedy on the mountain that you may feel a little aggrieved that the tension and the drama are not played upon to greater effect, but maybe only because we have been conditioned to think like this. It is a small complaint for a film that stands as a testament to the people who lost their lives on those two fateful days, May 10th and May 11th 1996.8/10

 

Everest is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.

 

 

Featured image credit: gearjunkie.com

Photo credits: rte.ie, wikiedia.com



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