Director: Baltasar Kormákur
By Roderick Heath
Mount Everest has always loomed in my imagination, a behemoth of rock standing like some exposed bone of the earth, puncturing the sky. When I was a kid, I watched the documentary Conquest of Everest (1953), which depicted Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent, fixated by the scale of the feat. Hillary’s photos of Norgay on the summit, wearing his mask and breathing oxygen, made him look like the first true astronaut, the pair of humans balancing on a pebble and touching the void. A lot of people obviously share this fascination, but some aren’t happy to just watch it on a screen. Forty years later, climbing Everest became a commercial tourist enterprise, professional climbers leading parties of variably rich and enthusiastic amateurs to the peak. The subject of Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is the mountain’s dormant treachery, the danger always present when climbing its bulk to heights usually traversed only in jets.
In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer had the painful and dubious fortune to join an Everest climbing party and find himself in the midst of a tragedy that he would report on in his book Into Thin Air. His account inspired a popular telemovie; a small industry of other accounts by survivors, some aimed at rebutting his take on the story; and now, a big-budget feature film. Recently, even worse disasters have struck would-be climbers of the great peak, lending timeliness to a tale that counsels respect for the power nature can still wield over us. Icelandic filmmaker Kormákur, began his directing career 15 years ago with a very different piece of work, the droll and raunchy Almodovar-esque comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000). He has been making movies ever since in both Iceland and in Hollywood, and here makes an overt stab at epic stature.
Mountain-climbing movies have a long pedigree, harking back to the craze for them in Weimar Germany, exemplified by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1928), a film that defined a finite blend of wrenching physical intensity and spiritual romanticism associated with great heights where people can die and yet remain, frozen and unchanged, for ages. Mountain climbing is an innately cinematic activity during which even the most banal maneuvers can be charged with visual beauty and a sense of fraught peril. The Challenge (1938) depicted the first climb of the Matterhorn, whilst films over the years of varying degrees of seriousness and excitement, including The White Tower (1948), The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1992), and Vertical Limit (2000), have all plied varieties of high-altitude melodrama. Everest, in telling a true and largely grim story, has no plot contrivances or great, driving stakes to lean on (like Vertical Limit, which was essentially 1953’s The Wages of Fear on a mountain), leaving Kormákur to create his sense of drama by paying attention to the contrasting spectacles of human-scale ambition and suffering, and the vast, dwarfing vista of the mountain, ignorant of the tiny creatures perambulating up its flanks. The chief players in the impending tragedy are professional mountain climbers Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), men who pioneered opening the mountain to tourism by acting as guides to small, relatively select groups of amateur climbers, who find themselves merely two of many competing operations.
Rob and Scott couldn’t be much more different as personalities: Rob is a sturdy, circumspect New Zealander who leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home to ply his trade, whilst Scott is a scruffy, blissed-out Yank fond of a good drink until he snaps into action. Rob is described as a “hand holder” who does his utmost to get all of his clients, no matter how shaky, to the top. Scott prefers a more Darwinian approach, believing only people capable of getting themselves to the summit under their own steam should make the trip—those who can’t hack it can head back down. Both men are intrinsically aware of the disconnect between the mores of dedicated, experienced mountain climbers and the concessions to the people they’re now dedicated to aiding. Mountain climbing can be a group activity, but treats strong, prudent, self-sufficient people the best. The vagaries of nature are indifferent to the timetables and expectations of paying customers. Scott’s tough, terse righthand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), avoids climbing with oxygen, as he feels they lend an air of false security, preferring hard, fast ascents and descents. This approach, however, asks more of the less rugged and experienced types their business depends on than some can manage.
Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, who was going to make the ascent with Scott’s Mountain Madness team, but instead signs on with Rob’s Adventure Consultants outfit and their motley crew of experienced and hardy climbers. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is out to finish her project of climbing all of the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent, by taking on the biggest of them all. Americans Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) are two highly contrasting personalities unified by their dedication to conquering the peak after many frustrations in pursuing their love of climbing. Beck is a big-mouthed, wealthy Texan, whilst Doug is a wiry man who laboured at three jobs to put together the funds for the climb, and even then, still needed Rob to give him a discount. Rob’s regular team includes fellow pro climber Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and loyal manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and newbie team doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), both of whom provide support at base camp. Rob and his company transport their clientele to the foot of the mountain to begin the rigorous acclimatisation and training process before launching a proper assault on the summit. On arrival, they’re confronted by the army of other climbing teams, some of whom resent Rob’s air of authority as the pioneer of their business and habit of looking askance at shabbier practices, like littering up the camp site.
This competition starts to make the situation tense and dangerous, at one point creating a human traffic jam at a dangerous crevasse crossing point. Teams try to get across this before the rising sun makes the ice brittle, and the delays make it ever more dangerous. Beck has a terrifying moment dangling from the rickety ladder bridge that leaves him shaken and inclined to tear a few angry strips off Rob, whilst Doug shows signs of susceptibility to the lung problems that descend at high altitudes. Faced with the prospect of teams tripping over each others’ toes when making their final ascents, Rob suggests to Scott that they cooperate and make their ascent together. Scott is cautious, aware of the teams’ different styles and ways of handling clients, and the teams’ lead sherpas Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa) clash heatedly. But Scott eventually agrees to the pact, and they head off during a window of good weather. There are always calculated risks in this business, with a storm cell hovering in the Bay of Bengal that may or may not come their way, an array of bodies that may or may not withstand the strains of more than eight kilometres above the sea, climbing with a squad of men and women who may or may not be able to effectively work together. When a brisk wind that dogs the team up to the South Col dies off, leaving a pristine and perfectly silent moonlit view of the peak, the climbers seem set for a swift and lucky ascent.
Kormákur presents Everest as a blend of movie styles, matching a polished, imposing brand of Hollywood spectacle on the visual level and the cues of an adventure drama, like Dario Marianelli’s thunderous music score, with a finicky, detail-based variety of realism on the dramatic level, exploring not just the whys and whens of the tale, but trying to come to grips with things as subtle as how body language signals differences in people that can help explain how eventually they will die on a mountain. Kormákur doesn’t always elegantly mesh these approaches, in part because of the slicker pretences of his filmmaking and the screenplay by one-time Gladiator (2000) cowriter William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, who has been selling the travails of ordinary people as multiplex fare as far back as The Fully Monty (1997) and who also penned 127 Hours (2009), a tale of similarly punished extreme sports hubris.
Everest is at its best when it sticks to studying the woozy, edgy camaraderie of these mountaineers, the sense of troubled awe found in the landscape, and the accumulation of minutiae that mean little in themselves, but add up to a deadly situation still being talked about 20 years later. Clarke and Gyllenhaal are particularly good as men bound by a certain code, but who approach it in divergent ways—the uneasy, assessing alertness that lurks under Rob’s affable, practiced demeanour, Scott’s tendency to play beach bum in the sky until duty calls and sees him push his body to a breaking point. Rob and Scott become, to a certain extent, victims and culprits in the calamity, men who sell their skills and their hard-won knowledge of the rarefied zones to others whose expectations and naivete, which no matter how hardy and experienced they are can’t entirely be shed until they venture into the deadly region above 8,000 metres, inevitably drive them to make perilous decisions.
Krakauer prods his fellow climbers over their motivations, but finds it hard to extract such nebulous, yet powerful drives from them; Rob fills in with that old standby, “Because it’s there.” The climbers’ overwhelming need to pit themselves against such a challenge and the feeling that they can’t rest until they’ve won against the mountain has no logical end, except perhaps the desire to not simply experience the extreme but to then share the experience. For Doug, it’s a virtually communal act, considering that he’s been partly sponsored by schoolkids and wants to plant a flag they gave him on the summit. Beck seems to be pushing against his own masculine self-image and fear of approaching middle age. Sam Worthington is shoehorned in as Guy Cotter, another climber who takes over communications when the team runs into trouble.
Kormákur emphasises the array of nationalities represented by these errant souls, people truly from every corner of the earth (and this is probably the first and last time in a major Hollywood film where a large percentage of the cast is playing Kiwis). The scaling of the mountain and subsequent events take up a bulk of the running time, and Kormákur handles this extended set-piece extremely well. The shoot was spread over a variety of locations, including some real footage taken near Everest, but with most high-altitude footage shot in Italy and mixed with occasional, mostly seamless special effects. It adds up to a convincing, dizzying approximation of the experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain and makes the film a must on the biggest screen you can find.
Kormákur holds a peculiar form of faith with the people he’s depicting. The act of reaching the peak is a maxim in their lives worth knocking on death’s door, and Kormákur follows them step by bloody step on a journey that is a stirring and noble moment in and of itself, but underscored by the anxiety that every extra second spent up that high brings these people closer to the disaster sneaking up on them. In this environment, tiny faults and minor delays become great big problems. Scott rushes down the mountain shepherding a wash-out, injects himself with dexamethasone to guard against pulmonary edema, the high-altitude equivalent of the bends, and heads on up again, pushing his body to the limit exactly when he needs reserves of strength and physical integrity. Beck, who had eye surgery years before, finds his vision going blurry from the altitude and cold and is left dazzled and lost by the trail. Crucial ropes needed to make the dangerous part of the ascent go missing.
Doug is halted by breathing trouble, but eventually he restarts and follows the party at a distance: when he proves determined to summit even as the rest of the party starts descending, Rob sticks with him, a seam of sentiment stirred by Doug’s agonised dedication—but with fateful consequence. A storm sweeps up the valley and slaps the mountain, and the people on it are immediately lost in a violent and freezing flurry that turns the operation into a hectic and lethal free-for-all where even the most experienced are readily overwhelmed. Those well-versed in these events or the various earlier versions will obviously know how these events play out, removing some of the tension from the familiarly constructed narrative, except perhaps for an immersive sense of the shock of the moment.
Kormákur captures the descent into chaos effectively, and makes the first death a particularly heartbreaking moment for not overplaying it: one moment a man is there, the next, nothingness. The grandeur remains, but has turned murderous. But Everest is hurt by a tendency to graze the obvious, like having Beck first appear wearing a Dole-Kemp campaign shirt to tell the audience he’s a bit of a good ole boy through period detail. Later, Beck has visions of his family, inspiring him to battle against the elements and begin an agonising trek, the kind of touch no filmmaker should be trying to ply in 2015. Kormákur has roots in a kind of oddball surrealism, but he would have done better sticking more purely to the docudrama template. The time-honoured desire to encompass a broad audience by appealing to basic reflexes of family relationships stretches a bit far. Actresses of the calibre of Watson, Knightley, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s wife Peach, are called upon to have their four or five minutes of screen time on the far end of increasingly distraught phone calls and do their wobbly-face emoting, in a business that is defined by a passing surreal disconnect between relative proximity and remoteness. This quality is at least drawn out by the pitiful strangeness of Jan’s attempts to contact her husband on the mountain as he struggles against soul and body-grinding forces of nature, proving that modern communications can reach anywhere, but still provide only an illusion of closeness and safety; that this scene is also true makes it especially poignant (also, kudos go for Knightley and Watson’s great Kiwi accents).
On the other hand, a scene in which Peach and her pals try to whip up action from diplomats and politicians from a coffee table war room sticks out for reeking badness, a cringe-inducing attempt to appeal to Republican mores where Peach stirs action with some mama bear growls, with Wright as the only caricature in the film. The final scenes, which depict a dangerous attempt at a helicopter rescue of one survivor at altitudes right at the threshold of the machine’s reach, feel rushed and flimsy, though again, this part of the tale is true. I also wonder why Yasuko’s story isn’t emphasised as much as the other characters, given that it’s just as dramatic and tragic as theirs: as a non-English-speaking woman, is she considered not as universally interesting? The straightforwardness of Kormákur’s approach gives the film crowd-enticing gloss, but also retards to a certain extent what should be a haunting study in stoicism and death. Only the very last shot, which is perfect, captures something of the same melancholy, spiritual grandeur, and vision of eternal stasis that Fanck and Pabst did so long ago.
Everest is ultimately an imperfect and perhaps slightly under-ambitious film, one that misses a chance to explore an obsession with the ethereal and the far reaches of experience in deference to remain a nail-biting hit. But it’s also the kind of big moviemaking with a human core that’s often desperately lacking this year, so I’m willing to forgive its faults. Most crucially, I walked away with a sense of healthy respect for both the living and the dead of Everest, and the mountain itself, which, however hazardous, still looms majestic in the mind, a place where dreams flow, for better and for worse.